But a Ukrainian official denied that the town of Severodonetsk, at the center of weeks of fierce fighting, had been surrounded, saying government troops had pushed Russian forces from its outskirts.
As the battle for Ukraine’s industrial heartland raged on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for “serious direct negotiations” between Russian leader Vladmir Putin and his counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
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EU leaders also “insisted on an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops” in an 80-minute phone call with the Russian leader, the German chancellery said.
Since failing to capture the capital Kyiv at the start of the war, Russia has focused on the eastern Donbas region as it tries to consolidate areas under its control.
“The situation is very difficult, especially in the Donbass and Kharkiv regions, where the Russian army is trying to achieve at least some result,” Ukrainian President Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation.
Earlier Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry said “the town of Krasny Liman has been completely liberated from Ukrainian nationalists”, using Moscow’s name for Lyman.
Lyman is on the road to Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, which a Lugansk provincial police official quoted by Russian state media said was “now surrounded”.
But regional governor Sergiy Gaiday told Ukrainian television “Severodonetsk has not been cut off…there is always the possibility of delivering humanitarian aid”.
His remarks came as Russia, in another military muscle-flexing exercise, said it had successfully tested hypersonic missiles in the Arctic.
Inside Severodentsk, where around 15,000 civilians live, a local official said “constant shelling” was making it increasingly difficult to enter and exit.
“Evacuation is very dangerous, these are isolated cases when we manage to get people out. Now the priority is the injured and people who need serious medical assistance,” said Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the military and civil administration of the city.
The water supply was also increasingly precarious, as the lack of electricity meant that the town’s well pumps were no longer working, he said, adding that residents had gone more than two weeks without mobile phone connection.
The only road ensuring contact with the outside world, meanwhile, is expected to be at the center of continued Russian attacks, Lugansk Governor Gaiday said on Saturday evening.
“The next week will be very difficult, because Russia is putting all its resources into seizing Severodonetsk, or cutting off the oblast from all communication with Ukraine,” he said.
While France and Germany have called for talks aimed at ending a war that has created millions of refugees, Saturday’s phone call with Putin also focused on a looming global food security crisis. .
In addition to capturing key port cities such as Mariupol, Russia used its warships to cut off yet others from Ukrainian hands, thus preventing the transport of grain.
Russia and Ukraine supply around 30% of the wheat traded on world markets.
Russia has tightened its own exports and Ukraine has large quantities blocked, driving up prices and reducing availability worldwide.
Putin has repeatedly denied responsibility, blaming Western sanctions instead.
But on Saturday, he told Macron and Scholz that Russia was “ready” to look for ways to allow more wheat into the world market.
“Russia is ready to help find options for the unhindered export of grain, including the export of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports,” the Kremlin quoted the minister as saying.
He also called for the lifting of sanctions to allow “an increase in the supply of Russian fertilizers and agricultural products” on the world market.
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy’s urgent pleas for more advanced weapons from Ukraine’s western allies appear to be bearing fruit, with Washington agreeing to send advanced long-range rocket systems, according to US media.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm delivery plans for the M270 multiple-launch rocket system, a highly mobile piece of equipment capable of firing up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) which Kyiv said it had cruelly need.
But he said Washington was “always committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield.”
In a phone call on Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Zelenskyy his country would continue to help “provide the equipment it needs,” his office said.
But Putin warned Macron and Scholz that increasing arms deliveries to Ukraine would be “dangerous” and risk “further destabilization”.
He spoke after Russian forces said they had successfully fired one of their Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles some 1,000 kilometers across the Arctic.
As Zelenskyy seeks to increase international pressure on Moscow, he will address European leaders at an emergency summit on Monday over a Russian oil embargo.
Agreement on the measure is blocked by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close ties with Putin.