Russian forces have taken control of most of the key Donbas city of Severodonetsk amid fierce house-to-house fighting as Kyiv awaits delivery of crucial advanced U.S. and German weaponry that Moscow warned would “pour gas on the fire” in the war in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces are holding just 20 percent of Severodonetsk, with the Russians controlling more than 60 percent, while the rest has become “no-man’s land,” Oleksandr Stryuk, the Ukrainian head of the city administration, said on June 1.
Mr. Stryuk, who declined to give his location, said the Ukrainians fighting pitched battles in the city still hope that they can prevent Russia taking full control.
“The 20 percent is being fiercely defended by our armed forces,” Mr. Stryuk said.
“We have hope that despite everything we will free the city and not allow it to be completely occupied,” he said, adding that 12,000 to 13,000 people were trapped in the city without food or water.
“Part of the Ukrainian troops” have now “retreated to more advantageous, pre-prepared positions,” said Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, while other troops continue “fighting inside the city.”
Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, said there was fighting in the streets in Severodonetsk and the Russians had reached the city center.
“The Ukrainian armed forces are actively resisting them,” he said.
If the Russians take control of Severodonetsk, “they will install artillery and mortars and will increase their bombardment of Lysychansk,” the Ukrainian-held city across the river, Mr. Hayday said late on June 1 on Telegram.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again called the situation in the east “very difficult,” telling U.S. newsgroup Newsmax in an interview broadcast on June 1 that Ukraine was losing 60 to 100 soldiers each day and around 500 were wounded in action.
The British Ministry of Defense said earlier in its daily intelligence update on Twitter on June 1 that according to its estimates, “over half of the town is likely now occupied by Russian forces, including Chechen fighters.”
The British intelligence report said that outside of the Donbas, “Russia continues to conduct long-range missile strikes against infrastructure across Ukraine.”
Five people were injured on June 1 in the western city of Lviv in a cruise-missile strike, a city official said. Russian troops attacked a railway tunnel in an effort to stop the supply of fuel and weapons from allies, the official said. But there was no confirmation of damage to the infrastructure.
In Lyman, 60 kilometers west of Severodonetsk, “the fighting continues,” the Ukrainian military said, despite an earlier report that the town, an important railway junction, had fallen to the Russians.
Further south in Bakhmut, Russia is “trying to oust units of our troops from their positions,” the military said.
The United States, meanwhile, has agreed to deliver longer-range rocket systems in a boost for the outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian forces.
U.S. President Joe Biden on June 1 formally announced that high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) are included in a new $700 million weapons package for Ukraine. Mr. Biden had said in an essay in The New York Times on May 31 that the weapons would be sent.
“The United States will stand with our Ukrainian partners and continue to provide Ukraine with weapons and equipment to defend itself,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
“This new package will arm them with new capabilities and advanced weaponry, including HIMARS with battlefield munitions, to defend their territory from Russian advances,” he said.
Mr. Biden announced the plan to give Ukraine HIMARS after receiving assurances from Kyiv that it would not use them to hit targets inside of Russian territory, a condition Washington imposed to avoid escalating the war.
“The Ukrainians have given us assurances that they will not use these systems against targets on Russian territory,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at an appearance in Washington with North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Mr. Blinken also said the current U.S. assessment was that there will still be “many months” of conflict.
“That could be over tomorrow if Russia chose to end the aggression. We don’t see any signs of that right now,” he said.
The announced consignment of high-tech weaponry will also include helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more, according to unnamed officials.
Although the HIMARS system stops short of the long-range rockets repeatedly requested by Kyiv – the M270 MLRS and the M142 that have a range of up to 300 kilometers – the news of the U.S. decision provoked anger in Moscow.
“We believe that the United States is purposefully and diligently adding fuel to the fire,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a regular conference call on June 1.
Mr. Peskov added that the Kremlin did not trust Mr. Zelenskyy’s assurances that Kyiv would not use the new weaponry to attack Russian territory.
Mr. Blinken dismissed the suggestion that the United States is risking escalation.
“It is Russia that is attacking Ukraine, not the other way around,” he said.
Following the U.S. announcement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on June 1 pledged to send Ukraine high-tech anti-aircraft systems amid criticism from the opposition that Berlin hasn’t provided enough military aid in the fight against Russia’s unprovoked invasion.
Speaking to lawmakers in Berlin on June 1, Mr. Scholz said the government had approved a proposal to ship IRIS-T missiles and radar systems to Kyiv as Russia continues to pound targets in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis warned on June 1 that food cannot become a weapon in the war Russia has launched against Ukraine.
The 85-year-old pontiff said during a regular audience on St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican that a blockade of grain exports from Ukraine, which millions of people depend on, especially in the poorest countries, “is causing grave concern.”
“Please, one does not use grain, a basic food, as a weapon in war!” he said, adding that everything must be done to solve the problem and guarantee people’s basic right to food staples.
On June 1, the Kremlin again said sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, and moves by Ukraine, were to blame for the potential food crisis.
(With reporting by Reuters, BBC, CNN, The New York Times, AP and AFP)
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