CONCLUSION 1-Ukrainian defenders hold firm in the city of Donbass


* Russian forces are pouring resources into the battle

* City of Sievierodonetsk under assault

* Ukraine pleads for more weapons from the West

* EU fails to agree on Russian oil embargo

By Max Hunder and Mari Saito

KYIV/KHARKIV, Ukraine, May 30 (Reuters) – European Union leaders will meet on Monday to reiterate their support for Ukraine as Russian forces step up their attacks to seize key southern city Sievierodonetsk -east of the Donbass region over which Moscow has prioritized full control.

Relentless shelling has left Ukrainian forces defending the ruins of Sievierodonetsk, but their refusal to withdraw is blocking a massive Russian offensive across Donbass.

“About 90% of the buildings are damaged. More than two-thirds of the city’s building stock has been completely destroyed. There is no telecommunication,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a televised speech.

“Capturing Sievierodonetsk is a fundamental task for the occupiers… We are doing everything possible to contain this advance.”

Zelenskiy visited Ukrainian troops on the front lines in the northeastern Kharkiv region on Sunday, his first trip outside the Kyiv region since the start of the invasion.

“You are risking your life for all of us and for our country,” the president’s office said, quoting his soldiers, as he handed out congratulations and gifts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the “liberation” of Donbass, an industrial region that includes Lugansk and Donetsk, was an “unconditional priority” for Moscow.

Ukrainian forces in Donbass said they were on the defensive all day Sunday. Russian forces fired on 46 communities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, killing at least three civilians, wounding two others, or destroying or damaging 62 civilian buildings.

Russian shelling also continued on Sunday in several regions such as Novy Buh in Mykolaiv and Sumy.

A Ukrainian soldier on patrol in trenches near the town of Bakhmut, southwest of Sievierodonetsk, expressed nagging fear that his government could be tricked into negotiating an end to the conflict that would see Ukraine lose territory.

“Do you know now what I’m most afraid of, now that the fighting is so intense, so hard?” Dmytro, a former English teacher, told Reuters television. “Let them tell us: that’s it, stop, we have a ceasefire.

“A negotiated settlement can only happen on Ukrainian terms and at the moment, if that happened, it would be a horror,” he said, adding that such a move could be career-ending. by Zelenskiy.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has expressed fears that EU unity is “starting to crumble” as the bloc’s leaders are due to meet Monday and Tuesday at a summit to discuss a new package of sanctions against Russia, including the oil embargo.

The draft conclusions of the meeting, seen by Reuters, showed that while the EU will be generous with verbal support for Kyiv, there will be little progress on one of the key issues.

EU governments have been unable to agree on a sixth set of sanctions against Moscow because a proposed Russian oil embargo is not acceptable to Hungary and is a big problem for the Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

HEAVY LOSSES

Having failed to take the capital Kyiv at the start of the war, Russia is seeking to consolidate its grip on Donbass, much of which is already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

The Ukrainian government has urged the West to provide more longer-range weapons to turn the tide of the war, which is now in its fourth month. Zelenskiy said he expects “good news” in the coming days.

US officials have said such weapons systems are being actively considered. Canada has asked South Korea to provide it with artillery shells, Seoul said Monday, ostensibly to “fill in” the supplies Ottawa sent to Ukraine.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington said the Russians had still failed to encircle Sievierodonetsk and that the Ukrainian defenders had inflicted “terrible casualties” on them.

The Ukrainians were themselves suffering heavy casualties, both civilians and combatants, they said in a briefing document.

Russia’s focus on Sievierodonetsk had drawn resources from other battlefronts and as a result they had made little headway elsewhere, analysts said.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Stephen Coates; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)