Russia takes small towns, aims to expand battle in eastern Ukraine

A child attends a mass at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine on Saturday. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

As Russia claimed progress in its aim to take over the entirety of disputed eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin on Saturday tried to shake European resolve to punish his country with sanctions and continue to supply weapons that have supported the defense of Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Lyman, the second small town to fall to Russia this week, had been “completely liberated” by a joint force of Russian soldiers and Kremlin-backed separatists, who made the war for eight years in the industrial sector. Donbass region bordering Russia.

Ukraine’s rail system transported weapons and evacuated citizens through Lyman, a key rail hub in the east of the country. Control of it would also give the Russian military another foothold in the region; it has bridges for troops and equipment to cross the Seversky

Donets River, which has so far hampered the Russian advance into the Donbass.

Ukrainian officials have sent mixed signals about Lyman. On Friday, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russian troops controlled most of it and were trying to continue their offensive towards Bakhmut, another town in the region. On Saturday, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar disputed Moscow’s claim that Lyman had fallen, saying fighting was still ongoing there.

In his video address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the situation in the east “very complicated” and said “the Russian military is trying to achieve at least some result” by concentrating its efforts there. down.

The Kremlin said Putin had an 80-minute phone call with French and German leaders on Saturday in which he warned against continued Western arms transfers to Ukraine and blamed the disruption of supplies global food supply by Western sanctions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have called for an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, according to the Chancellor’s spokesperson. Both urged Putin to engage in serious direct negotiations with Zelensky to end the fighting, the spokesman said.

A Kremlin reading of the appeal with Macron, Putin and Scholz said the Russian leader affirmed “the Russian side’s openness to resuming dialogue”. The three leaders agreed to stay in touch, according to the reading.

But Russia’s recent progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up Donbass, could further embolden Putin. Since failing to occupy Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia has moved to seize the last parts of the region not controlled by the separatists.

“If Russia succeeded in taking control of these areas, it would most likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantial political achievement and would be presented to the Russian people as justification for the invasion,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Saturday. Evaluation.

Russia has intensified its efforts to seize the major cities of Severodonetsk and near Lysychansk, which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province. Zelensky called the situation in the east “difficult” but expressed confidence that his country would prevail with the help of Western weapons and sanctions.

“If the occupiers think that Lyman or Severodonetsk will be theirs, they are mistaken. Donbass will be Ukrainian,” he said.

The governor of Luhansk reported that Ukrainian fighters repelled an assault on Severodonetsk but Russian troops were still pushing to surround them. Speaking to Ukrainian TV later on Saturday, Governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians seized a hotel on the outskirts of Severodonetsk.

Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Friday that some 1,500 civilians in the city with a pre-war population of around 100,000 died there during the war, including from lack of medicine or disease. which could not be processed.

The advance of Russian forces raised fears that residents could suffer the same horrors as residents of the southeastern port city of Mariupol in the weeks before its fall. Residents who had not yet fled were given the choice of risking it now or staying put.

Just south of Severodonetsk, AP reporters saw elderly and sick civilians bundled up in soft stretchers and slowly being carried down the stairs of an apartment building in Bakhmut on Friday.

Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to convince reluctant residents to leave but said she and her husband would not evacuate until their son, who was in Severodonetsk, returned home .

“I need to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m staying here,” said Lvova, 66.

On Saturday, people who managed to flee Lysychansk described increased shelling, particularly over the past week, which prevented them from leaving basement bomb shelters.

Yanna Skakova said she left town on Friday with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons. She cried as she sat on a train bound for western Ukraine. She said her husband stayed behind to take care of their home and animals.

“It’s too dangerous to stay here now,” she said, wiping away her tears.

A nearly three-month-long siege of Mariupol ended last week when Russia claimed full control of the city. Mariupol has become a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as Ukrainian determination to defend the country.

The port of Mariupol reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing the Sea of ​​Azov off the once bustling city. Russian state news agency Tass reported that a ship bound for the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don entered the Mariupol seaport on Saturday morning.

The Kremlin said Putin had stressed to Macron and Scholz that Russia was working to “establish peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated towns in Donbass”.

Ukrainian authorities have reported that Kremlin-installed officials in seized towns have begun broadcasting Russian news broadcasts, introduced Russian area codes, imported Russian school curricula, and taken other steps to annex the areas.

Russian-controlled areas in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine have switched to Moscow time and “will no longer switch to daylight saving time, as is customary in Ukraine”, said Russian state agency RIA Novosti, citing Krill Stremousov, a local official installed by Russia. say Saturday.

A woman carries a bag past destroyed houses in Mariupol.

Destroyed buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine on Friday. (Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

The war in Ukraine has caused global food shortages as the country is a major exporter of grain and other staples. Moscow and Kyiv traded accusations over who was responsible for keeping cargo tied up in ports, with Russia saying Ukrainian sea mines were preventing safe passage and Ukraine citing a Russian naval blockade.

The press service of the Ukrainian naval forces said that two Russian missile carriers “capable of carrying up to 16 missiles” were ready to intervene in the Black Sea. He said only sea routes that had been established by multilateral treaties could be considered safe.

As Ukraine attempts to repel the Russian invasion, officials in the country have pressured Western nations for more sophisticated and powerful weapons. The US Department of Defense did not confirm a CNN report on Friday that the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine.

Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Anatoliy Antonov on Saturday called such a move “unacceptable” and called on the Biden administration to “drop claims about Ukraine’s military victory.”

A Telegram article published on the official channel of the Russian Embassy quoted Moscow’s top diplomat in Washington as saying that “the unprecedented pumping of weapons into Ukraine greatly increases the risks of an escalation of the conflict”.

Moscow is also trying to scare Sweden and Finland into their determination to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Russian Defense Ministry said its navy successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea. The ministry said the newly developed Zircon hypersonic cruise missile hit its target about 620 miles away.

If confirmed, the launch could cause problems for NATO travel in the Arctic and the North Atlantic. Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, and would be unstoppable with current missile defense systems.

Moscow’s claims, which could not immediately be verified, came a week after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would train new military units in the west of the country in response to applications from Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.