The fate of Ukraine’s entire Donbass region depends on the strategic city of Severodonetsk, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned overnight as he urged defenders to hold off Russian advances that are increasingly clouding the prospects for the eastern part of his contested country.
The war in Ukraine, which entered its 16th week on Thursday, has pivoted decisively from attempts to seize the capital Kyiv and northeastern metropolis Kharkiv to the eastern industrial heartland, where Russia has long fomented separatism and is now doing so controlled vast tracts of land.
Kyiv, where rockets hit suburbs and mass graves were discovered earlier in the war, is welcoming back foreign dignitaries as embassies reopen and Russian forces around Kharkiv have been largely repelled. But Moscow troops have occupied the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian militants have been holding out for weeks in an underground steelworks complex amid sustained attacks, and Kherson, the southern coastal city that fell first.
Well, on one of the few points on which Kyiv and the Kremlin seem to agree, Donbass appears poised if Ukrainians don’t turn around – something they’ve previously achieved in other regions of this fertile country, but this looks harder day.
Severodonetsk in Luhansk, one of the two provinces of Donbass, is “the epicenter of the confrontation,” Zelenskyy said in an overnight address on Wednesday.
He said Ukraine had inflicted “significant casualties” on the enemy. But that claim could not be verified and came days after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 97% of Luhansk had been “liberated” by Russia, a term Moscow uses in line with its description of the war as an attempt to target Ukrainians and Saving Russians Spokesman for a corrupt “Neo-Nazi” government.
“The fate of our Donbass will be decided there,” Zelenskyy said of Severodonetsk, where the two sides have been locked in bitter street fighting. He has previously described Severodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk, both along the strategic Seversky Donets River, as “dead cities” devastated by the grueling war of attrition.
Fighting was reported from across the area on Thursday.
“The enemy fired at our units with mortars, artillery and multiple rocket launchers,” Ukraine’s military general staff said in a statement Thursday. “It fired on civilian infrastructure in the settlements of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Privillya, Ustynivka, Horske and Katerynivka.”
As we approached the front here in Lysychansk, the signs of war were clear.
The roar, the hiss of rocket launchers firing their payloads, and the roar of heavy machine guns echoed in the air. The hour-long artillery duels between Ukrainians and their Russian opponents had set fire to large parts of Severodonetsk on Thursday morning.
Even as fighting begins to engulf parts of Lysychansk, some residents insisted on staying.
“That’s my home. I was born here. Why should I go?” said Alexander, a retiree who only gave his first name for privacy reasons. He sat with a few others in the backyard of an artillery-damaged building, heating water for tea on a makeshift stove.
Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk on Thursday described his city’s plight as “difficult but manageable”.
But Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said in a statement that the situation was so dire that it was impossible to evacuate people from the city. Intermittent evacuations continued in other hard-hit cities, including Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, even as fighting raged for territorial control.
Haidai, like Zelenskyy, said Ukraine needs the West to send more long-range weapons to help with its defense. With that, the governor said, Ukraine could take positions in Severodonetsk “in two or three days.”
Taking over the Donbass would allow Moscow to realize ambitions to extend its territorial control west and expand the land it has already wrested from Ukraine. That includes Crimea, the peninsula they illegally annexed in 2014.
Donbass is also home to part of Ukraine’s significant agricultural industry. Dubbed the “breadbasket of Europe,” the nation has seen its exports blocked by Russian ships guarding its ports. A majority of exports usually go to North Africa and the Middle East.
On Thursday, Zelensky warned on television of a possible food crisis if foreign nations and humanitarian groups don’t step in to help unblock corn, oil and wheat exports.
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Zelensky said the world is approaching a “terrible food crisis,” a position echoed by humanitarian and trade organizations in recent months.
“This means that unfortunately there may be physical shortages of product in dozens of countries around the world. Millions could starve if Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea continues,” the president said.
Turkey, which has previously hosted talks between the two sides, has tried to coordinate a deal between Kyiv and Moscow to allow grain shipments across the Black Sea.
Ukraine has accused Russia of using the war to steal grain from her country, an allegation under investigation by the British Foreign Secretary, among others.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said no agreement had been reached on grain exports and that talks were continuing.
Bulos reported from Lysychansk and Kaleem from London.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-06-09/ukraine-donbas-fate-in-severodonetsk-war-russia Zelensky: Fate of Ukraine’s Donbas on line in fight for city