KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-backed separatists claimed to have captured a rail town in eastern Ukraine as Moscow forces pushed to gain more ground on Friday by pounding another Ukrainian-held area where authorities say 1,500 people have died since the war began.
While the Russian offensive in Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region shows gradual progress, Ukrainian officials have described the battle as serious and renewed their calls for more sophisticated weapons supplied by the West. Without this, the foreign minister warned, Ukrainian forces will not be able to stop Russia’s eastward advance.
Some European leaders have sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a war – now in its 93rd day – with global economic repercussions, while Britain’s foreign secretary has sought to rally the continued Western support for Ukraine.
“We must not talk about a ceasefire or appeasement of Putin. We have to make sure Ukraine wins. And that Russia stands down and we will never see this type of Russian aggression again,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
But east of Ukraine, Russia has the upper hand. Friday’s fighting focused on two key towns: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. These are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbass and where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled certain territories for eight years.
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“There are battles on the outskirts of the city. The massive artillery shelling does not stop, day and night,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press. “The city is systematically destroyed – 90% of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
An assault was underway in the northeast quarter of the city, where Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted Friday to seize the Mir Hotel and the area around it, Striuk said.
At least 1,500 people have died in Sievierodonetsk because of the war since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, he said.
The figure includes those killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated illnesses, lack of medicine or that they were trapped under the rubble, according to the mayor.
There are about 12,000 to 13,000 people left in the city, down from a pre-war population of around 100,000, he said. Those who remain are crammed into shelters, largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine.
Volunteers hoped to evacuate around 100 people on Friday from a small town just south of Sievierodonetsk. It was a laborious process: many evacuees from Bakhmut were elderly or infirm and had to be carried out of apartment buildings on soft stretchers and wheelchairs.
Minibuses and vans drove through the city, picking up dozens for the first leg of a long journey west by car or train.
“Bakhmut is a high-risk area at the moment,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase. “We try to get as many people out as possible.”
In Donetsk, the other Donbass province, Russian-backed rebels said on Friday they had taken control of Lyman, a major rail hub north of two other key towns still under Ukrainian control.
“We lost Lyman,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich admitted Thursday evening. However, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported on Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to push them out of the city completely.
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Ukrainian analysts said Russian forces took advantage of delays in Western arms deliveries to step up their offensive in the east and secure territory before Ukrainian fighters could push them back.
Russia has sent an additional 10 to 12 battalion tactical groups to the area, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
However, throwing so much muscle on the offensive could backfire by seriously depleting the Russian arsenal. Echoing a UK MoD assessment, Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “meaning the world’s second army is running out of modernized equipment.”
Mykola Sunhurovskyi, an analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kyiv, said that in the future, “it is in Putin’s interest to solidify the situation that has developed today on the front line, to bite at Ukraine what there is still strength for, and to secure that line of contact”. as a position in (possible) negotiations.
As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations: “We need heavy weapons. The only position where Russia is better than us is the amount of heavy weapons it has. Without artillery, without multiple rocket launcher systems, we will not be able to repel them.
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had harsh words for the European Union, which has not agreed to a sixth round of sanctions including an embargo on Russian oil. Hungary, one of Moscow’s closest allies in the EU, is obstructing the deal.
“The pressure on Russia is literally about saving lives,” Zelenskyy said. “And every day of delay, weakness, various disputes or proposals to ‘appease’ the aggressor at the expense of the victim, new Ukrainians are killed. And new threats to everyone on our continent.
Zelenskyy said Russia’s offensive in Donbass could leave its communities in ashes and uninhabitable. He accused Moscow of pursuing “an obvious policy of genocide” through mass deportations and killings of civilians.
On Thursday, the Russian shelling of Kharkiv, a northeastern city that came under attack as Ukrainian forces blocked invading troops from entering, killed nine people, including a father and his 5-month-old baby, said President.
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AP reporters saw the bodies of at least two dead and four injured men at a central metro station, where the victims were taken as shelling continued outside.
To the north, neighboring Belarus announced on Friday that it was sending troops to the Ukrainian border, raising concerns within the Ukrainian military command. Russia used Belarus as a staging base before invading Ukraine.
Germany’s development minister visited Ukraine on Friday to pledge additional civilian support and discuss the country’s reconstruction.
Meanwhile, European leaders have been talking with Putin about alleviating the growing global food crisis exacerbated by Kyiv’s inability to ship millions of tonnes of grain and other agricultural products as it comes under attack.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said there was no breakthrough during his Thursday conversation with Putin on unblocking Ukrainian ports.
“If you ask me if there are any openings for peace, the answer is no,” Draghi told reporters.
Moscow has sought to blame the food crisis on the West, calling on its leaders to lift existing sanctions.
Putin told Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Friday that Ukraine should remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe shipping, according to a Kremlin reading of their conversation; Russia and Ukraine have swapped responsibility for mines near Ukrainian ports.
Nehammer’s office said the two leaders had also discussed a prisoner swap and that Putin had indicated that efforts to organize one would be “intensified”.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and AP reporters around the world contributed.