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Destroyed houses in Vilhivka village amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 11 2022. Picture: REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES
Destroyed houses in Vilhivka village amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 11 2022. Picture: REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES

Kyiv/Kramatorsk — Russian forces intensified their assault on two key towns in Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region on Wednesday, with constant mortar bombardment destroying houses, killing civilians and threatening the last escape route, Ukrainian officials said.    

After failing to seize Kyiv or Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take the rest of the separatist-claimed Donbas’s two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front.

In the easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin, Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk region under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.

Russian forces are advancing from three directions to encircle them and shelling the main road from the towns to Ukrainian territory in a bid to cut off their key supply route.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said the Russians launched an offensive on Sievierodonetsk early on Wednesday and the town was under constant fire from mortars. “All the remaining strength of the Russian army is now concentrated on this region ... the occupiers want to destroy everything there,” Zelensky said of the situation in Donbas in a late night address.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said six civilians were killed and at least eight wounded, most near bomb shelters, in Sievierodonetsk.

Ukraine’s military said it repelled nine Russian attacks on Tuesday in the Donbas and Moscow’s troops had killed at least 14 civilians there, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.

Reuters could not immediately verify that information but saw the aftermath of the strike by at least two missiles on a train repair facility in Pokrovsk, a hub for supplies and evacuations from the Donetsk region.

In Kramatorsk, nearer the front line, the streets were largely deserted, while in Sloviansk in the western Donbas, many residents took advantage of what Ukraine said was a break in the Russian assault to leave.

“My house was bombed, I have nothing,” said Vera Safronova, seated in a train carriage among the evacuees.

Along with the eastern Donbas region, Moscow is also targeting southern Ukraine, where officials said shelling had killed a civilian and damaged scores of houses in Zaporozhzhia and missiles had destroyed an industrial facility in Kryviy Rih.

Moscow has blockaded ships from southern Ukraine that would normally export Ukrainian grain and sunflower oil through the Black Sea, pushing up prices globally and threatening lives.

“It cannot be in Russia’s interest that because of Russia, people are dying of hunger abroad,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told Reuters on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling for dialogue.

Russia, which has blamed Ukraine and the West for the food crisis, said on Wednesday it is ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine but said Western sanctions would need to be lifted in return.

Russian deputy foreign minister Andrei Rudenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying solving the food problem requires a “comprehensive approach”. Russia is in touch with the UN and “does not rule out the possibility of global talks to unblock Ukraine’s ports”, he said.

Ukrainian legislator Yevheniia Kravchuk told Reuters time is running out to ship grain, because the new harvest will be in six weeks, though it is expected to be only 70% of the normal level because of territory being occupied or mined.

Separately, Russia’s defence ministry said the port of Mariupol, the Ukrainian city taken by Russia last week after devastating bombardment and a three-month siege, is operating normally.

Rudenko said it is premature to establish a Russian military base in Ukraine’s Kherson region, adjacent to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military losses in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation as Moscow stepped up artillery strikes to compensate for its slow progress.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia is deliberately advancing slowly in what it calls its “special operation” to avoid civilian casualties. Zelensky dismissed those comments as “absolutely unreal”.

Western nations have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration said on Tuesday it will not extend a waiver set to expire on Wednesday that enables Russia to continue to pay US bondholders. The decision could push Moscow closer to the brink of default, but unlike in most default situations, Moscow is not short of money. Russia’s debt repayment dues pale in comparison with its oil and gas revenues, which stood at $28bn in April alone thanks to high energy prices.

British retailer Marks & Spencer on Wednesday became the latest company to announce it will pull out of Russia completely, taking a charge of £31m.

Zelensky told Davos that the conflict can be ended only with direct talks between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said Russia should withdraw to lines in place before its February 24 invasion. “That might be a first step towards talks,” he said.

The prime minister of Estonia, another former Soviet republic which fears Russian aggression, said Ukraine should not be forced into compromises. “It is much more dangerous giving in to Putin than provoking him. All these seemingly small concessions to the aggressor lead to big wars. We have done this mistake already three times: Georgia, Crimea and Donbas.”

Reuters

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