Russia takes small towns, aims to expand eastern Ukraine battle

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — As Russia claimed progress in its goal to seize the entirety of disputed eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin on Saturday tried to shake European resolve to punish his country through sanctions and to continue supplying arms which have supported Ukraine’s defence.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Lyman, the second small town to fall this week, had been “completely liberated” by a joint force of Russian soldiers and Kremlin-backed separatists, who fought the war for eight years in the industrial region of Donbass on the border with Russia.

Ukraine’s rail system transported weapons and evacuated citizens through Lyman, a key rail hub to the east. Control of it would also give the Russian military another foothold in the region; it has bridges for troops and equipment to cross the Siverskiy Donets River, which has so far hampered the Russian advance into Donbass.

Ukrainian officials have sent mixed signals about Lyman. On Friday, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russian troops controlled most of it and were trying to continue their offensive towards Bakhmut, another town in the region. On Saturday, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar disputed Moscow’s claim that Lyman had fallen, saying fighting was still ongoing there.

In his video address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the situation in the east “very complicated” and said “the Russian military is trying to achieve at least some result” by concentrating its efforts there. down.

The Kremlin said Putin had an 80-minute phone call with French and German leaders on Saturday in which he warned against continued Western arms transfers to Ukraine and blamed the disruption of supplies global food supply by Western sanctions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have called for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops, according to the chancellor’s spokesman, and called on Putin to enter into serious and direct negotiations with Zelensky to end the fighting.

A Kremlin reading of the appeal said Putin had affirmed the “openness of the Russian side to resuming dialogue”. The three leaders, who had gone for weeks without speaking to each other in the spring, agreed to stay in touch, he added.

But Russia’s recent progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up Donbass, could further embolden Putin. Since failing to occupy Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia has moved to seize the last parts of the region not controlled by the separatists.

“If Russia succeeded in taking control of these areas, it would most likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantial political achievement and would be presented to the Russian people as justification for the invasion,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Saturday. Evaluation.

Russia has intensified its efforts to seize the towns of Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring town of Lysychansk, which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk.

Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai reported that Ukrainian fighters repelled an assault on Sievierodonetsk, but Russian troops were still pushing to surround them. He later said Russian forces seized a hotel on the outskirts of town, damaged 14 high-rise buildings and were fighting in the streets with Ukrainian forces.

Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said there was fighting at the city’s bus station. A humanitarian center could not operate due to the danger, Striuk said, and cell phone service and electricity were cut. And residents risked being exposed to shelling to draw water from half a dozen wells, he said.

Some supply routes are working and evacuation of the injured is still possible, Striuk said. He estimated that 1,500 civilians in the city, which had a population of around 100,000 before the war, died from fighting as well as lack of medicine and incurable diseases.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, Associated Press reporters saw elderly and sick civilians bundled up in soft stretchers and slowly carried down the stairs of an apartment building in Bakhmut on Friday.

Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two apartment buildings in Bakhmut, tried to persuade reluctant residents to leave, but said she and her husband would not evacuate until their son, who was in Sievierodonetsk, returned home. him.

“I need to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m staying here,” 66-year-old Lvova said.

On Saturday, people who managed to flee Lysychansk described increased shelling, particularly over the past week, which prevented them from leaving basement bomb shelters.

Yanna Skakova left town on Friday with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons and cried as she sat on a train bound for western Ukraine. Her husband stayed behind to take care of their home and animals.

“It’s too dangerous to stay here now,” she said, wiping away her tears.

Russia’s advance has raised fears that residents could face the same horrors seen in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which suffered a three-month siege before falling last week. Residents who had not yet fled had to choose whether to try to do so now or stay. Mariupol has become a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as Ukrainian determination to defend the country.

The port of Mariupol reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing the Sea of ​​Azov. Russian news agency Tass reported that a ship bound for Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia entered the port early on Saturday.

During the call with Macron and Scholz, the Kremlin said, Putin stressed that Russia was working to “establish peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated cities in Donbass.”

Germany and France brokered a 2015 peace deal between Ukraine and Russia that would have given a large degree of autonomy to Moscow-backed rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. However, the deal stalled long before the Russian invasion in February. Any hope that Paris and Berlin would anchor a new peace deal now seems unlikely, with Kyiv and Moscow taking hardline positions.

Ukrainian authorities have reported that Kremlin-installed officials in seized towns have begun broadcasting Russian news broadcasts, introduced Russian area codes, imported Russian school curricula, and taken other steps to annex the areas.

Russian-controlled areas in the southern Kherson region have switched to Moscow time and “will no longer switch to daylight saving time, as is customary in Ukraine”, the news agency said. of Russian state RIA Novosti, citing Krill Stremousov, a local official installed by Russia. say Saturday.

In his address on Saturday, Zelenskyy also accused Russian forces of preventing Kherson residents from leaving, saying they were “trying to take people hostage” as a “show of weakness”.

The war has caused global food shortages as Ukraine is a major exporter of grain and other staples. Moscow and Kyiv have traded accusations over who is responsible for keeping the cargoes tied up, with Russia claiming Ukrainian sea mines prevented safe passage and Ukraine citing a Russian naval blockade.

Ukrainian naval forces press service says two Russian ships ‘capable of carrying up to 16 missiles’ are ready for action in the Black Sea, adding that only sea routes established by multilateral treaties can be considered safe .

Ukrainian officials have lobbied Western nations for more sophisticated and powerful weapons. The US Department of Defense did not confirm a CNN report on Friday that the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems.

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoliy Antonov said on Saturday such a move would be “unacceptable” and urged the White House to “drop statements about Ukraine’s military victory.”

Moscow is also trying to shake the determination of Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Russia’s Defense Ministry said its navy successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea that hit its target about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.

If confirmed, the launch could cause problems for NATO travel in the Arctic and the North Atlantic. The Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead and would be unstoppable with current defense systems.

Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would form new military units in the west of the country in response to Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO.

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