Intense fighting in eastern Ukraine as Europe pledges more military aid

Intense fighting raged in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia concentrated its forces without making significant progress, while “very difficult negotiations” were underway over the fate of the last besieged defenders in the city of Mariupol.

Europe on Friday pledged an additional $500 million in military support to Ukraine as it resists the Russian invasion that began on February 24, while moves by Sweden and Finland to join the NATO face multiple obstacles.

In late March, after failing to take the capital kyiv in the face of determined resistance, Russia turned to eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attempts to cross a river and encircle the city of Severodonetsk, said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region.

“There is heavy fighting on the border with the Donetsk region, on the Popasna side,” Gaidai said, citing heavy losses of equipment and personnel by the Russians.

“Interceptions [phone calls]we understand that a set [Russian] battalion refused to attack, because they see what is happening.”

Aerial footage showed dozens of destroyed armored vehicles on the river bank and destroyed pontoon bridges.

The British Ministry of Defense said the Russians suffered heavy casualties after Ukrainian forces managed to block their attempt to cross the river.

“Conducting river crossings in a contested environment is a very risky maneuver and speaks to the pressure on Russian commanders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine,” he said.

The ministry added that Russian forces had “failed to make any significant advances despite the concentration of forces in this area”.

A senior US defense official said most of the activity is now taking place in the Donbass region, “and essentially we continue to see the Russians not making any major gains” there.

According to the latest assessment by the American Institute for the Study of War, “Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to directly annex southern and eastern occupied Ukraine… within months of to come”.

Russia’s hopes of quick gains appear to have been thwarted and Ukraine even managed to push Russian troops out of the northern city of Kharkiv, which had been a priority target for Moscow.

In the Kharkiv region, “the main efforts of the enemy are focused on the withdrawal of its units from the city of Kharkiv,” said the spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff.

“Difficult negotiations”

“The gradual liberation of the Kharkiv region proves that we will not leave anyone to the enemy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday in his daily video address.

“Of course, we remember every city and every community that is still under occupation,” he said, with special mention of the southern port city of Mariupol where the last defenders are entrenched in the vast steelworks of ‘Azovstal.

“We keep trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal,” Zelensky said.

“Currently, very difficult negotiations are taking place on the next stage of the evacuation mission – the rescue of the seriously injured, the medics. This is a large number of people.”

Women, children and the elderly who had taken refuge in the tunnels and bunkers of the Azovstal factory were evacuated at the end of April with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross.

Ukraine’s General Staff said in an update on Saturday that Russian forces continued to “block our units near the Azovstal factory” and carried out “massive artillery and air strikes”.

From inside the factory, Sviatoslav Palamar, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, told the Kyiv Online Safety Forum that there were 600 injured people there and asked for help to evacuate them.

“We continue to defend ourselves and we will not surrender,” he said.

Applications of Finland and Sweden to NATO

At a meeting in Germany of G7 foreign ministers, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Friday promised Ukraine an additional 500 million euros ($520 million), bringing the bloc’s total military aid to two billion euros.

The meeting of G7 ministers, joined by their Ukrainian and Moldovan counterparts, continues on Saturday.

An informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers is also scheduled in Berlin on Saturday, where the Swedish and Finnish ministers plan to meet their Turkish counterpart to discuss their potential alliance candidacies.

This follows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing his opposition to their entry.

US President Joe Biden spoke to Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Friday about the NATO plan.

The White House said it was “working to clarify” Erdogan’s position on the issue.

Approval from every NATO member is required to expand the alliance.

And a day after leaders in Helsinki said their country must apply to join NATO “without delay”, Russia’s state energy group Inter RAO announced it would cut off electricity supplies to Finland at from Saturday.

Inter RAO’s subsidiary in the Nordic region blamed the suspension on not having received payment for electricity sold in May.

Russia had warned that it would be forced to take “reciprocal measures” if Finland joined NATO, to “deal with the resulting threats”.

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