Sunday, June 26

Russian forces close to encircling Sievierodonetsk in eastern Ukraine | Ukraine

The besieged Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk appeared to be almost completely surrounded by attacking Russian forces on Friday as the Kremlin continued to make steady incremental gains in its offensive in the Donbas region backed by withering shell fire.

As the cities of Kharkiv and Dnipro also came under attack, analysts said the main Russian effort appeared still to be focused to the east, while Russian attacks elsewhere appeared to be aimed at consolidating their positions and tying down Ukrainian defenders who could otherwise be redeployed.

Underlining the state of the fighting in Donbas, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who has cast himself as one of Ukraine’s most vocal cheerleaders, said Russia was making slow but “palpable progress”, as the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, accused the Kremlin of carrying out a “genocide” in the country’s east.

Ukraine’s foreign minister also offered a bleak assessment. “The military situation in eastern Ukraine is even worse than people say it is and the country needs heavy weapons now to effectively fight Russia,” Dmytro Kuleba said.

His comments came as the United States and its allies indicated they would provide Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons, including the multiple-launch rocket systems Kyiv has been appealing for.

Amid the increasingly gloomy news from the campaign in the east, where Ukrainian defenders have been forced to retreat from some positions, Zelenskiy said on Friday that Ukraine was not eager to talk to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but that it had to face the reality that this would probably be necessary to end the war.

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“There are things to discuss with the Russian leader. I’m not telling you that to me our people are eager to talk to him, but we have to face the realities of what we are living through,” Zelenskiy said in an address to an Indonesian thinktank.

“What do we want from this meeting? … We want our lives back… We want to reclaim the life of a sovereign country within its own territory,” he said, adding that Russia did not appear to be ready yet for serious peace talks.

In reply, the Kremlin said on Friday it blamed Ukraine for the fact that peace talks between the two countries were frozen, saying it was unclear what Kyiv wanted.

The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said in a call with reporters: “The Ukrainian leadership constantly makes contradictory statements. This does not allow us to fully understand what the Ukrainian side wants.”

A resident of Bakhmut, a town south-west of Sievierodonetsk, walks past an industrial building damaged by a Russian strike. Photograph: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

The situation in Sievierodonetsk appeared particularly desperate, with Russian troops reported in some parts of the city.

Its mayor said Russian forces were in the Myr hotel on Thursday, on the city’s outskirts, and that 1,500 people had died in the fighting, while between 12,000 and 13,000 were trapped.

Russia appeared to have gained full control of the strategic town of Lyman, with the governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, saying there was heavy fighting around the city after Ukrainian troops withdrew to a new line of defence.

Pro-Russia separatists in the Donetsk region said they had “liberated and taken full control of 220 settlements, including Krasny Liman”, using an old name for Lyman.

According to some reports, Ukraine has been increasingly forced to plug the gaps among its defenders in Donbas with volunteers, highlighting the increasing stress on its forces in the region.

Oleh Synehubov, the regional governor of Kharkiv, who lies to the north of Donbas, said nine civilians had been killed in Russian shelling on Thursday.

A five-month-old child and her father were among the dead, while her mother was seriously wounded, he said on social media channels.

An Agence France-Presse reporter in the city said the northern residential district of Pavlove Pole was hit and plumes of smoke rose from the area.

The journalist saw several people wounded near a shuttered shopping centre, while an elderly man with injuries to his arm and leg was carried away by medics.

Commentators believe that Russia’s gains in the three months of war have been far more paltry than Putin originally hoped for, although Moscow has gained control over a handful of cities in southern Ukraine, such as Kherson and Mariupol.

That has been cited as the explanation for the intensity of the Russian effort to take the entirety of Donbas, in what could be painted as a major victory for Putin.

The Kremlin is seeking to tighten its grip over the parts of Ukraine it occupies, including fast-tracking citizenship for residents of areas under Russian control.

The occupying authorities in Mariupol, which was taken over by invading forces this month after a devastating siege that left thousands dead and reduced the city to rubble, have canceled school holidays to prepare students to switch to a Russian curriculum, according to Kyiv.

Whether Russian forces can advance beyond Donbas and the areas in the south they currently control is more questionable.

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