Eastern Donbas ‘extremely difficult’ for Ukrainians as Russia intensifies attacks

Luhansk governor says 568 civilians are holed up in chemical plant and Lysychansk being shelled ‘en masse’

The military situation for Ukraine’s defenders in the eastern Donbas is “extremely difficult”, the governor of the Luhansk region has said, as Russian attacks intensified in an effort to capture Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

Serhiy Haidai said overnight that Russia had said 568 civilians were holed up in the Azot chemical plant at Sievierodonetsk, the last site held by Ukraine’s forces in the city on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets River.

“It is a sheer catastrophe,” he told the Associated Press. “Our positions are being fired at from howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, large-caliber artillery, missile strikes.”

Neighbouring Lysychansk on the west bank was being shelled “en masse”, Haidai added, while analysts warned of a nearby Russian breakthrough that meant the invaders’ forces were four miles (7km) south-east of the city.

A police station in the city took a “direct hit”, wounding 20 officers, according to special forces colonel Oleksandr Kutsepalenko, and the residential neighbourhood around it was marked with craters from shelling and airstrikes.

The Ukrainian president’s office said that at least six civilians had been killed in the previous 24 hours, and 16 others were wounded. It said Russian forces has shelled the northern Chernihiv region, and intensified their shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Explosions had also occurred on Tuesday morning in the southern city of Mykolaiv.

Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst, said the situation in Lysychansk looked “increasingly bleak for Ukrainians” after Russians broke defence lines near the villages of Toshkivka and Ustynivka to its south.

Haidai acknowledged that “the situation along the entire Luhansk front is extremely difficult” in an earlier posting on his Telegram channel, saying Russia was launching “a large-scale offensive” using reserve forces.

Rodion Miroshnik, the ambassador to Russia of the self-proclaimed republic in Luhansk, said its forces were “moving from the south towards Lysychansk” and predicted an imminent victory.

Capturing Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk would hand Russia almost all Luhansk oblast, one of the two regions of the Donbas. Moscow’s goal may be to demonstrate to the west it can achieve a military victory before the EU, G7 and Nato summits that starting on Thursday this week.

Previously, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had predicted Russia would step up attacks before the EU summit. Overnight he added: “Russia is very nervous about our activity. We are defending Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. This whole region is the most difficult, there are the hardest battles.”

Muzyka said Ukraine should have withdrawn from Sievierodonetsk some time ago and focused on the defence of Lysychansk, which sits at a higher elevation to its near neighbour and is in theory easier to protect. But the flanking advance across the river from the south-east now threatens it.

The two sides have been engaged in an increasingly intense struggle over the past six weeks for Sievierodonetsk, with thousands of casualties. Ukraine has almost certainly suffered most in the face of a protracted artillery bombardment by the Russians that has destroyed dozens of buildings.

Ukrainian forces meanwhile claimed their first successful use of western-donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles to engage Russian forces, the UK Ministry of Defence said on Tuesday. “The target of the attack was almost certainly the Russian naval tug Spasatel Vasily Bekh, which was delivering weapons and personnel to Snake Island in the north-western Black Sea,” it said in its daily update.

Kyiv’s defence ministry also said it had “finally” deployed an advanced German artillery system after all seven howitzers promised by Berlin arrived. “Panzerhaubitze 2000 are finally part of 155 mm howitzer arsenal of the Ukrainian artillery,” Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov wrote on social media, thanking his German counterpart, Christine Lambrecht.

Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said that Russia would further strengthen its armed forces as a result of “potential military threats”, in a speech to a group of graduates of Russian military academies.

“We will continue to develop and strengthen our armed forces, taking into account potential military threats and risks,” he said. Putin added that the Russian army was being supplied with the S-500 surface-to-air missile system and said that Russia would this year deploy the newly tested Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of more than 10 nuclear warheads.

Russia’s defence ministry said Russian television was now broadcasting across the entire occupied Kherson region in the south, captured by the invaders in the first week of the war.

It is the latest step in a forced Russification of the occupied areas of Ukraine, where Russia has tried to issue passports, introduce the rouble, ask teachers to switch curriculums and other measures.

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Two US volunteer soldiers captured in fighting north of Kharkiv a fortnight ago have been filmed by Russian television at a detention facility in the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, some distance from where they were taken.

Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, had been fighting as part of the Ukrainian army. The US state department said it was aware of the film and was “closely monitoring”.

The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview released by NBC News that the men “should be held responsible for those crimes that they have committed” and were not covered by the Geneva conventions protecting prisoners of war.

Three other foreign fighters, the Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and the Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, were sentenced to death by a court in Donetsk earlier this month, although they have time to appeal. Russia does not carry out the death penalty but the separatist republic, unrecognised by the west, does.


Dan Sabbagh in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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