Russia pushes Ukrainian defenders into the outskirts of a major eastern city

  • Russian forces escalate their attack on a city in the east of the country
  • Ukrainians may cut back on spending, but they won’t give up on the city’s governor
  • Ukraine launches “Book of Executions” detailing war crimes
  • Turkey, Russia study UN plan to allow Ukraine grain exports

Kyiv/SLOVENIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces withdrew to the outskirts of the industrial city of Severodonetsk on Wednesday in the face of a fierce Russian offensive, the region’s governor said, another big swing in momentum in one region. The bloodiest battle of the war.

Russia has concentrated its forces and firepower on the small eastern city in recent weeks to secure the surrounding province on behalf of the separatist proxies. Ukraine has vowed to fight there for as long as possible, saying the battle could help shape the war’s future course.

After announcing a surprise counterattack last week, the governor of the surrounding Luhansk region said Wednesday afternoon that most of the city was once again in the hands of the Russians.

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“…(Our forces) now only control the outskirts of the city again. But the fighting is still going on,” Serhi Gaidai told RBC-Ukraine media.

In an online post, he said that Ukrainian forces still control all of the smaller twin city of Lysichansk on the western bank of the Seversky Donets River, but that Russian forces have caused massive destruction of apartment buildings there.

Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motozyanek said that Russian forces have 10 times more equipment than Ukrainian forces in some regions of Severodonetsk. Ukraine urged its Western allies to speed up arms deliveries, saying the situation would become very difficult for it if Russia breached its lines in the east.

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“The path to peace lies through heavy weapons,” Ukrainian negotiator and presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, repeating warnings that the war could extend to the European Union if Russia was not defeated in Ukraine.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the situation on the ground in Severodonetsk.

Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm and “discredit” its neighbor. Ukraine and its allies say Moscow has launched an unprovoked war of aggression that has killed thousands of civilians and razed cities to the ground. UN figures show that more than 7 million people have crossed the border from Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24.

“God save me”

Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province make up Donbass, which Moscow has claimed for its proxies who have controlled the eastern parts of the region since 2014. Moscow has been trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in the areas it still controls.

West of Serverodontsk in Sloviansk, one of the major Donbass cities in Ukrainian hands, women with young children lined up to collect aid while other residents carried buckets of water around town.

Most residents have fled, but authorities say about 24,000 are still in the city, on the way to an expected offensive by Russian forces that have regrouped in the north.

Albina Petrovna, 85, described the moment when there was an attack on the building she was staying in, shattering the windows of her home and destroying her balcony.

“Broken glass fell on me, but God saved me,” she said. “I have scratches everywhere…”.

Russia has shifted its focus to Donbass since the defeat of its forces on the outskirts of Kyiv in March.

The office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that two people were killed in the Luhansk region and four were killed in the Kharkiv region in the past 24 hours, and others were injured.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, residents were clearing rubble from the previous day’s bombing. Ukraine expelled Russian forces last month from the city’s outskirts, but Russia continues to strike them sporadically.

CCTV footage showed the moment late Tuesday when a suspected missile hit a shopping center housing a supermarket, scattering debris and merchandise. Drone footage showed a gaping hole in the roof of the large building.

“The supporting pillars were completely destroyed,” said supermarket manager Svetlana Diulina, adding that no one was hurt in the attack.

Fear of pills

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, and Western countries accuse Russia of creating the threat of global famine by blockading Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea. Moscow says Western sanctions are to blame for the food shortage.

Turkey is trying to mediate negotiations to open Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu received Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and said a UN-backed agreement on the ports was possible with further talks. Read more

Lavrov said Ukrainian ports could be opened, but Ukraine would have to clear them first. Ukraine dismissed the Russian assertions as “hollow words” and said Russian attacks on farmland and agricultural sites in the south were exacerbating the crisis.

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Vitaly Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region, where the warehouses of one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural commodity terminals were destroyed by Russian bombing at the weekend, told Reuters that Moscow was trying to intimidate the world into meeting its conditions. Read more

The Kremlin had earlier quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that Western sanctions should be lifted so that Russian grain could reach the market. Read more

To make matters worse, the Russian-installed administration in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhya region in southern Ukraine said it plans to hold a referendum later this year on joining Russia. Russian officials in the country’s western Kherson province announced similar plans.

Some lawmakers from Russia’s ruling United Russia party have suggested uniting Donbass with Russia as well. The region has not yet announced a referendum, but the president of the Donetsk region, Denis Pushlin, replaced its government on Wednesday, citing the need to strengthen “integration processes”.

Ukraine and its Western allies consider any planned referendums in the occupied territories illegitimate and evidence that Russia’s real goal is to occupy the territories. Read more

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Additional reporting by Tom Palmforth, Natalia Zenets, David Leungren and Reuters offices. Writing by Himani Sarkar, Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Michael Perry, Peter Graf and Alex Richardson

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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