Putin tightens his grip on Donbas as key city on verge of falling

Putin tightens his grip: Ukrainian stronghold is on the verge of falling as governor reveals troops are poised to retreat while Russian bombardment cuts power to another Donbas city

  • Russian forces now control 80 per cent of Severodonetsk as Luhansk governor says Putin’s men are attacking the stronghold city from all sides 
  • Serhiy Haidai said defence holds but he would surrender the city if order is given
  • Meanwhile Russian bombardment has cut power and water to city of Slovyansk 
  • Putin is tightening his grip on Donbas, which he now claims is sole aim of his war 

A key Ukrainian stronghold in the Donbas appears on the verge of falling to Russia as the region’s governor began openly talking of surrendering the city today. 

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk province, said Russia is now attacking the city of Severodonetsk from all sides and that – if his is given the order by Kyiv to surrender the city – then he would be willing to do so. 

Haidai said the decision to abandon Severodonetsk – one of the last Ukrainian strongholds in his province – will not be taken lightly but that ‘the war is the bigger priority’, according to a morning briefing from the BBC.

It came as heavy fighting also broke out to the north of Slovyansk, another key city in neighbouring Donetsk province, with Russian bombardment cutting water, power and gas supplies – leaving the last remaining citizens facing the prospect of a siege.

Capturing the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – which together make up the Donbas – is now the chief aim of Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ which entered its 100th day today, after attempts at a rapid victory with an attack on Kyiv failed.

A Russian tank burns after being hit by Ukrainian anti-tank weapons in Donbas, where intense fighting is underway for control of the region

A Russian armoured vehicle painted with symbols identifying it to other units is pictured rolling through the city of Popansa, on its way to Severodonetsk

A Russian tank painted with the ‘Z’ symbol that has become synonymous with Putin’s war is pictured moving through the city of Popansa, heading for Severodonetsk

A Russian Ka-52 ‘alligator’ attack helicopter flies over the city of Popansa, amid heavy fighting in the nearby city of Severodonetsk

Russia has been tightening its grip on the Donbas in recent days – making slow, costly, but steady progress in subduing the region with withering artillery fire.

Kyiv says Putin’s army is now in control of 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory, compared to around 7 per cent when the invasion began on February 24.

President Zelensky admitted yesterday that up to 100 men are dying every day, most of them in Donbas, while another 500 are being wounded – a staggering casualty toll that will be difficult to maintain even as reserves and conscripts are called up. 

Severodonetsk’s Azot factory, one of Europe’s biggest chemical plants, was targeted by Russian soldiers who fired on one of its administrative buildings and a warehouse where methanol was stored.

Ukrainian troops were still holding an industrial zone, Gaiday said, a situation reminiscent of Mariupol, where a huge steelworks was the southeastern port city’s last holdout until Ukrainian troops finally surrendered in late May.

The situation in Lysychansk – Severodonetsk’s twin city, which sits just across a river – also looked increasingly dire.

About 60 percent of infrastructure and housing had been destroyed, while internet, mobile network and gas services had been knocked out, said the city’s mayor Oleksandr Zaika.

‘The shelling is getting stronger every day,’ he said.

In the city of Slovyansk, 50 miles from Severodonetsk, residents said there were constant bombardments by Russian troops.

‘It’s very difficult here,’ said paramedic Ekaterina Perednenko, 24, who only returned to the city five days ago but realises that she will have to leave again.

‘Shooting is everywhere, it’s scary. No water, electricity or gas,’ she said.

And in Mykolaiv in the south, Russian shelling killed at least one person and injured several others, Ukrainian military officials said late Thursday.

Led by the United States, Western nations have pumped arms and military supplies into Ukraine to help it survive the onslaught.

Bridget Brink, the new US ambassador to Kyiv, promised Thursday that the United States would ‘help Ukraine prevail against Russian aggression,’ after presenting her credentials to Zelensky.

Earlier this week, the United States announced that it was sending more advanced Himar multiple rocket launch systems to Ukraine.

The mobile units can simultaneously fire multiple precision-guided munitions at targets up to 80 kilometres away.

A woman looks for belongings in the ruble of their house after a strike destoyed three houses in the city of Slovyansk – a city that is now without power

Residents look for belongings in the rubble of their home after a strike destoyed three houses in the city of Slovyansk

Sergiy Tarasyuk, 49, sits on his bed in his destoyed house after a missile strike in the city of Slovyansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas

They are the centrepiece of a $700 million package that also includes air-surveillance radar, ammunition, helicopters and vehicles.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of ‘adding fuel to the fire,’ although US officials insist Ukraine has promised not to use them to strike inside Russia.

Beyond sending arms to Ukraine, Western allies have also sought to choke off Russia’s financial lifeline in a bid to get Putin to change course.

Ramping up an already long list of embargoes, the United States blacklisted Putin’s money manager and a Monaco company that provides luxury yachts to Moscow’s elite.

Across the Atlantic, EU nations agreed new sanctions that would halt 90 percent of Russian oil imports to the bloc by the end of the year.

Russia warned that European consumers would be the first to pay the price for the partial oil embargo.

Major crude producers agreed to boost output by about 50 percent more a month in an effort to calm an overheated market and ease pressure on inflation.

But the move disappointed investors, and prices rose following the announcement.

The war risks triggering a global food crisis, as Ukraine is one of the world’s top grain producers.

It was already translating into higher costs for essentials from cereals to sunflower oil to maize, with the poorest among the hardest hit.

The head of the African Union, Senegalese President Macky Sall, is to visit Russia on Friday for talks with Putin.

The visit is aimed at ‘freeing up stocks of cereals and fertilisers, the blockage of which particularly affects African countries’, along with easing the Ukraine conflict, Sall’s office said.

TIMELINE: 100 days of war in Ukraine

Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, setting off the worst conflict in Europe in decades.

As Russia extends its grip over the east, we look back on 100 days of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and reduced entire cities to rubble.

February 24: Russia invades – Russian President Vladimir Putin announces a ‘special military operation’ to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘de-Nazify’ the former Soviet state and protect Russian speakers there.

A full-scale invasion starts with air and missile strikes on several cities. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pledges to stay in Kyiv to lead the resistance.

February 26: Massive sanctions – West adopts unprecedented sanctions against Russia and offers Ukraine military aid.

Air spaces are closed to Russian aircraft and Russia is kicked out of sporting and cultural events.

February 27: Nuclear threat – Putin puts Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, in what is seen as a warning to the West not to intervene in Ukraine.

February 28: First talks – During the first peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, Russia demands recognition of its sovereignty over Crimea, the ‘demilitarisation’ and ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine and a guarantee Ukraine will never join NATO. Ukraine demands a complete Russian withdrawal.

March 3: Kherson falls – Russian troops attack Ukraine’s south coast to try to link up territory held by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine with the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.

On March 3, Kherson in the south becomes the first city to fall. Russian forces relentlessly shell the port of Mariupol.

March 4: Media crackdown – Russia passes a law punishing what it calls ‘fake news’ about its offensive – such as referring to its ‘special military operation’ as an invasion – with up to 15 years in prison.

March 16: Mariupol theatre razed – Russian air strikes raze a Mariupol theatre killing an estimated 300 people sheltering inside. Moscow blames the attack on Ukraine’s nationalist Azov battalion.

March 16: Zelensky lobbies Congress – Zelensky tells the US Congress to ‘remember Pearl Harbor’ and lobbies Western parliaments for more help.

April 2-3: Horror in Bucha – After a month of fighting, Russia withdraws from northern Ukraine, announcing it will focus its efforts on conquering the eastern Donbas region.

On April 2 and 3, Ukrainians find dozens of corpses of civilians scattered on the street or buried in shallow graves in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which Russian forces had occupied.

Moscow dismisses accusations of Russian war crimes, saying the images of the bodies are fakes.

April 8: Train station carnage – A rocket attack on a train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk kills at least 57 civilians being evacuated from Donbas.

April 12: Biden speaks of ‘genocide’ – Biden accuses Russia of ‘genocide’, saying Putin appears intent on ‘trying to wipe out the idea of even being able to be a Ukrainian’.

April 14: Flagship sinks – Ukrainian missiles hit and sink Russia’s missile cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea, a major setback for Moscow.

May 11: $40 billion in US aid – US lawmakers back a huge $40-billion package of military, economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

May 16: Kharkiv retreat – Ukraine says its troops have driven Russian forces back from the outskirts of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, to the Russian border.

May 18: Sweden, Finland apply to NATO – Finland and Sweden apply to join NATO, reversing decades of military non-alignment because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

May 23: First war crimes conviction – A Ukrainian court finds a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of war crimes and hands down a life sentence for shooting dead a 62-year-old civilian in northeastern Ukraine in the opening days of the war. He has appealed.

May 21: Battle for Mariupol ends – Russia declares it is in full control of Mariupol after Ukraine ordered troops holding out for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks to lay down their arms to save their lives.

Nearly 2,500 soldiers surrender and are taken prisoner by Russia.

May 30: EU bans most Russian oil – EU leaders overcome resistance from Hungary to agree a partial ban on most Russian oil imports as part of a sixth wave of sanctions.

The deal bans oil imports delivered by tanker but allows landlocked countries such as Hungary to continue receiving Russian oil by pipeline.

May 31: Russia seizes part of eastern city – Russian troops seize part of the key eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk, its governor says. Taking the city would give Russia de-facto control over Lugansk, one of two regions that make up the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. 

Reporting by AFP 

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