Fierce battles in eastern Ukraine and Russia speak of the “priority of liberation”

Russian soldiers, backed by heavy aerial bombardment, are seeking a strategic foothold in eastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky paid a rare visit to the Kharkiv front lines, seeking to assess the country’s defences.

Ukrainian officials said Russian forces stormed Severodonetsk. The Ukrainian president described the situation there as “indescribably difficult”.

He added that incessant Russian artillery bombardment had destroyed the city’s infrastructure and damaged 90% of its buildings.

He also said: “The capture of Severodonetsk was a main objective of the occupying forces” and that the Russians did not care about the loss of life.

The town’s mayor said the fighting had cut electricity and mobile phone services, and forced the humanitarian relief center to close.

There were fears that Severodonetsk could turn to another Mariupol, which was under a three-month Russian siege before its fighters surrendered.

“Unconditional priority”

Meanwhile, the RIA news agency quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Sunday that the “liberation” of Donbass in eastern Ukraine is an “unconditional priority” for Moscow, while others Ukrainian regions can decide their own fate.

“The liberation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are recognized by the Russian Federation as independent states, is an unconditional priority,” RIA news agency reported.

As for the rest of Ukraine, he added, “people have to decide their fate in those areas.”

Zelensky to Kharkiv

In another development, Zelensky visited the battlefront in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, where Ukrainian fighters forced Russian forces from their nearby positions weeks ago.

“I am infinitely proud of our defenders. They risk their lives daily and fight for the freedom of Ukraine,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram after the visit.

Governor Ole Senehubov said Russia continued its shelling of the city and explosions were heard shortly after Zelensky’s visit.

It should be noted that shelling and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings in the city since Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, according to Sinihopov.

In a teleconference speech broadcast later on Sunday, Zelensky praised Kharkiv officials but said he fired the region’s security chief because of his “poor performance”.

He added that Russian forces still control about a third of the territory of the wider Kharkiv region.

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