Ukraine looked close to losing the key eastern city of Severodonetsk to Russian forces but was boosted Wednesday by the US decision to send more advanced rocket systems to help with its defence.
“The Russians control 70 per cent of Severodonetsk,” Lugansk region governor Sergiy Gaiday announced on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing to prepared positions.
“If in two or three days, the Russians take control of Severodonetsk, they will install artillery and mortars and will bombard more intensely Lysychansk,” the city across the river, which Gaiday said remained under Kyiv’s control.
One of the industrial hubs on Russia’s path to taking the eastern Lugansk region, Severodonetsk has become a target of massive Russian firepower since the failed attempt to capture Kyiv.
But in a boost for the outgunned Ukrainian military, President Joe Biden confirmed that more US weaponry was on the way to allow them to “more precisely strike key targets” in Ukraine.
The new weapon is the Himars multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS: a mobile unit that can simultaneously launch multiple precision-guided missiles.
They are the centrepiece of a $700 million package being unveiled Wednesday that also includes air-surveillance radar, more Javelin short-range anti-tank rockets, artillery ammunition, helicopters, vehicles and spare parts, a US official said.
With a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometres), they will allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind Russian lines.
‘Fuel to the fire’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of “adding fuel to the fire”, saying “such supplies” did not encourage Kyiv to resume peace talks.
In an article in the New York Times, Biden insisted: “We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”
He wrote: “We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia.
“As much as I disagree with Mr. (President Vladimir) Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow.”
While some analysts have suggested the Himars could be a “game-changer”, others caution they should not be expected to suddenly turn the tables, not least because Ukrainian troops need time to learn how to use them effectively.
What they may do is improve morale.
“If you know you have a heavy weapon behind you, everyone’s spirits rise,” one Ukrainian fighter on the frontline told AFP before the announcement.
On the eastern frontline in Donbas, Ukrainian towns are being subjected to near-constant shelling from Russian forces.
Moscow said Wednesday it had no information on the death of a French journalist killed this week while covering the evacuation of civilians in the east of the country.
West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, AFP journalists saw buildings destroyed by a rocket attack in which three people died and six others were hurt.
And on Wednesday, at least one person died and two others were injured in Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, AFP saw.
The European Union has also sent weapons and cash for Ukraine while levelling unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow.
Germany said Wednesday it would deliver an air defence system capable of shielding a major city from Russian air raids, although it will take months to get to the frontline.
EU leaders agreed this week to ban most Russian oil imports but played down the prospects of shutting off Russian gas on which many member states are hugely dependent.
Moscow said a “reorientation” was underway to find alternative destinations for the oil, to “minimise the negative consequences” of the move.
Separately, Russian energy giant Gazprom said its gas exports to countries outside the former Soviet Union dropped by more than a quarter year-on-year between January and May after losing several European clients.
Russia has sought to get around sanctions by demanding payment for gas in rubles, cutting off countries that refuse.
Denmark was set to become the latest target Wednesday, after the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.
Danes meanwhile were voting on whether to overturn the country’s opt-out on the EU’s common defence policy.
The referendum came just weeks after neighbouring Finland and Sweden abandoned decades of military non-alignment by applying to join NATO as a defence against Russian aggression.
Grain as weapon
Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said authorities had identified a “few thousand” cases of war crimes in the Donbas, including murder, torture and the forced displacement of children.
The key aide of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who met international counterparts in The Hague on Tuesday, said Kyiv was already set to prosecute 80 suspects for alleged war crimes on Ukrainian soil.
A Ukrainian court on Tuesday jailed two Russian soldiers for 11 and a half years for shelling two villages in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
Earlier this month, another was jailed for life for murdering a civilian, although he has appealed.
Russia’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbour is also threatening a global food crisis, with Ukraine’s huge grain harvest effectively taken off the world market.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Wednesday the most vulnerable would suffer as the war “inflames a three-dimensional global crisis in food, energy and finance”.
Earlier Pope Francis pleaded against the use of grain as a “weapon of war”, and appealed for “every effort to be made” to “guarantee the universal right to food”.
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy have all urged Putin in recent days to end Russia’s blockade of the port of Odessa.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to the West and Kyiv to resolve the crisis, starting with the lifting of sanctions.
In Kyiv, meanwhile, Ukrainian football fans were set to watch their national side play its first official match since Russia’s invasion, facing Scotland in a World Cup qualifier later Wednesday in Glasgow.
“I am hoping for victory,” 44-year-old army serviceman, Andriy Veres, told AFP.
“These days it is very important for the country, for all people, for all those who are fans and even for those who are not.”
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