Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday made his first trip to the war-torn east since the invasion of Moscow began, as Russian forces tightened their grip on key cities in the Donbass region.
After visiting Kharkiv, Zelensky announced he had sacked the northeastern city’s security chief in a rare public rebuke.
Zelensky said the man was fired “for not having worked to defend the city from the first days of full-scale war, but thinking only of himself”, and that if others had worked “very effectively”, the former leader had not done.
Although the president did not name the official, Ukrainian media identified him as Roman Dudin, the head of the Kharkiv region’s SBU security service.
Earlier, Zelensky’s office posted a video on Telegram of the president wearing a bulletproof vest while looking at destroyed buildings in and around Kharkiv.
As war devastates much of his country, Ukraine’s president is expected to speak via video link to European Union leaders in Brussels on Monday as they seek to break the deadlock over a Russian oil embargo.
Pressure to the east
Russia, since failing to capture the capital Kyiv at the start of the war and then withdrawing from the Kharkiv region, has shifted its focus to the eastern region of Donbass.
His forces said on Saturday they had captured the town of Lyman in the disputed region and were increasing pressure on the twin towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
Zelensky has been based in Kyiv since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale attack on Ukraine.
“In this war, the occupiers are trying to achieve at least some result,” Zelensky said in a subsequent Telegram post on Sunday.
“But they should have understood long ago that we will defend our land to the last man,” he added.
While a third of the Kharkiv region remained under Russian control, “we will for sure liberate the whole area,” Zelensky said. “We are doing everything we can to contain this offensive.”
The situation in Lysychansk had “significantly worsened”, regional governor of the Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said on Telegram.
“A Russian shell fell on a residential building, a girl died and four people were hospitalized,” he said.
On the other bank of the Donets River, Russian forces “carried out assault operations in the area of the city of Severodonetsk”, according to the Ukrainian general staff.
The fighting in the city was progressing street by street, Gaiday said.
Zelensky, in his daily address, described a scene of devastation in Severodonetsk, saying, “All critical infrastructure has already been destroyed… More than two-thirds of the city’s building stock has been completely destroyed.
In the besieged city, where around 15,000 civilians remain, 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 is also increasingly unstable and residents have gone more than two weeks without mobile phone connection, he added.
On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it destroyed a Ukrainian Armed Forces arsenal in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih with “long-range high-precision missiles”.
Russian forces also targeted a Ukrainian air defense system near Mykolaivka in the Donetsk region, as well as a radar station near Kharkiv and five ammunition depots, including one near Severodonetsk.
During his trip to Kharkiv, Zelensky discussed reconstruction plans with local officials, saying there was a chance that areas devastated by Russian attacks would “get a new face”.
According to local officials, more than 2,000 apartment buildings were completely or partially destroyed by Russian shelling in the area.
In Kharkiv itself, customers were returning to the famous Crystal Cafe in the central public park after it reopened in late April.
Residents come for a coffee, a bite to eat, or to taste “Biloshka” ice cream, a Crystal specialty that the vendor has been serving since the 1960s.
“You have to keep the job. The city is coming back little by little,” cafe manager Alyona Kostrova, 36, told AFP.
The menu has been reduced due to supply problems and the local operates with a reduced staff, at seven or eight against 30 or 40 before the war.
Far from the city center in the Saltivska district, where Russian shells continue to fall, the atmosphere is different.
“I wouldn’t say people buy a lot. People don’t have money,” said Vitaly Kozlov, 41, who sells eggs, meat and vegetables locally.
Volodymyr Svidlo, 82, tells AFP he “has no pension”, and comes “once a week” to the neighborhood to sell items, such as onions, dill and flowers of his garden in order to make ends meet.
When Zelensky addresses EU leaders at their emergency summit on Monday, he will urge them to “kill Russian exports” as he seeks to increase international pressure on Moscow.
A new round of EU sanctions has been blocked by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close ties with Russia’s Putin.
The landlocked country is heavily dependent on Russian crude oil supplied through the Druzhba pipeline.
Hungary has asked for at least four years and 800 million euros ($860 million) in European funds to adapt its refineries and increase pipeline capacity for alternative suppliers, such as Croatia.
But under a new proposal submitted to national negotiators on Sunday, the Druzhba pipeline could be excluded from a sanctions package, which would only target oil shipped to the EU by tankers.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)