Putin’s troops, Ukrainians fight block by block in eastern city

Key points

  • Russian troops pushed farther into a key eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk.
  • The city is key to Russian efforts to complete the capture of the eastern industrial region before more Western arms arrive to help Ukraine.
  • The US is preparing a new package of weapons for Ukraine, but it won’t send long-range rocket launchers. 
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked EU leaders to target Russian oil exports, so Moscow “feels the price for what it is doing against Ukraine”.
  • French journalist, Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, died near Sievierodonetsk when he was hit by shrapnel.

Kramatorsk, Ukraine: Russian troops pushed farther into a key eastern Ukrainian city and fought street by street with Kyiv’s forces in a battle the mayor said has left the city in ruins and driven tens of thousands of people from their homes.

Military analysts painted the fight for Sievierodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin.

A building heavily damaged in a Russian bombing in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine. Credit:AP

The city is key to Russian efforts to complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of the Donbas quickly — before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defence.

Weapons from the West have already helped Kyiv’s forces thwart a Russian advance on the capital in the early weeks of the war. That failure forced Moscow to withdraw, regroup, and pursue the more limited objective of seizing the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists already held swaths of territory and have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years.

“The Kremlin has reckoned that it can’t afford to waste time and should use the last chance to extend the separatist-controlled territory because the arrival of Western weapons in Ukraine could make it impossible,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.

But in a potential setback for Ukraine, the US will not send Ukraine rocket systems that can reach into Russia, President Joe Biden said.

A damaged children’s climbing frame, in the shape of rocket, stands in the playground of a destroyed apartment block in Borodianka, Ukraine. Credit:Getty

“We’re not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that strike into Russia,” Biden told reporters after arriving back at the White House after a weekend in Delaware.

Biden and his team are working on a new package of military equipment and it is expected to be announced in coming days.

Ukraine has started receiving Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and self-propelled howitzers from the United States, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Saturday.

In addition to pleading for weapons from allies, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also repeatedly insisted that European countries and others must punish Russia for its aggression, with sanctions and embargoes on Moscow’s lucrative energy sector.

Neighbours gather around a house on fire that was hit during a Russian attack with a cluster-type munition in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.Credit:AP

In a video address Monday to European Union leaders, Zelenskyy asked the 27 nations of the bloc to target Russian oil exports, so Moscow “feels the price for what it is doing against Ukraine”.

The leaders are considering an embargo on Russian oil — but struggling to find consensus.

Russia has also sought to use its energy exports to its advantage, cutting off natural gas to a handful of European countries in what was seen as an effort to punish and divide the West over its support for Ukraine. In its latest move, Russian state gas giant Gazrpom said it will halt gas supplies to Dutch gas trader GasTerra starting on Tuesday.

The Russian military’s focus on Sievierodonetsk has already left the city “completely ruined,” Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said. Artillery barrages have destroyed critical infrastructure and damaged 90 per cent of the buildings, and power and communications have been largely cut to a city that was once home to 100,000 people.

“The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and the wounded amid the street fighting,” Striuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview, adding that Moscow’s troops advanced a few more blocks toward the city centre.

He said that only about 12,000 to 13,000 residents remain, sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape the Russian bombardment — a situation that recalls the siege of Mariupol that trapped residents and led to some of the worst suffering of the war.

Striuk estimated that 1500 civilians have died in his city since the war began, from Russian attacks as well as from the dire conditions, including a lack of medicine or medical treatment. More than 20,000 are feared dead in Mariupol.

French journalist

Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive Russian occupiers in Kherson, in a bid to sever Moscow’s supply into the southern port city, the Telegraph of London has reported.

Announcing the mission, Ukraine’s military said on Twitter: “Hold on Kherson, we’re coming.”

Kherson fell to Russian forces as pushed north out of Crimea at the beginning of the invasion.

A 32-year-old French journalist, Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, died on Monday near Sievierodonetsk when he was hit by shrapnel from shelling while covering Ukrainians evacuating the area, according to his employer, French broadcaster BFM TV.

BFM TV reporter Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff. Credit:AP

Beyond long sieges of cities, Russia’s troops have also been accused of carrying out targeted killings and other atrocities in areas they briefly held around Kyiv early in the war. On Monday, prosecutors submitted the first rape case of the war to a court — the last step before a trial begins. The 31-year-old Russian soldier, who is accused of killing a man and raping his wife in Bohdanivka, a village northeast of Kyiv, will be tried in absentia, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces reinforced their positions on the northeastern and southeastern outskirts of Sievierodonetsk, 145 kilometres south of the Russian border in an area that is the last pocket of Ukrainian government control in Luhansk.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were also pushing toward nearby Lysychansk. In addition to the journalist, two civilians were killed in the latest Russian shelling, he said.

Three civilians were also killed Monday in the Donetsk region, which together with Luhansk makes up the Donbas, the governor said. Authorities in Kharkiv reported one dead in the latest shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city.

The Russian advance in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk on either side of the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River is part of an all-out push, Zhdanov said.

The intensity of the latest fighting and the fact that Russia has poured troops in from their far east have come as a surprise to the Ukrainians, who are trying to hold out until more weapons can arrive, Zhdanov said.

On Monday, Biden told reporters that there are no plans for the US to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, amid reports that the move is being considered.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said that was a “reasonable” decision.

He said that “otherwise, if our cities come under attack, the Russian armed forces would fulfil their threat and strike the centres where such criminal decisions are made.”

Medvedev added that “some of them aren’t in Kyiv”.

Russian pressure also continued in the south on Monday. Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said an artillery strike on a shipyard in the southern port of Mykolaiv destroyed Ukrainian armoured vehicles parked there.

In the Kherson region, the Russia-installed deputy head of the regional administration, Kirill Stremousov, told Russia’s Tass state news agency that grain from last year’s harvest is being delivered to Russian buyers, adding that “obviously there is a lot of grain here.”

Ukraine has accused Russia of looting grain from territories its forces hold, and the US has alleged Moscow is jeopardising global food supplies by preventing Ukraine from exporting its harvest.

Russia, meanwhile, has pressed the West to lift sanctions against it as it seeks to shift the blame for the growing food crisis — which has led to skyrocketing prices in Africa.

Zelensky urged France not to succumb to such “blackmail” as the Ukrainian president met on Monday with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

AP, Reuters

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