Crisis in Ukraine: Russian-backed rebels pound Donbass, claim rail hub – News

Impossible to stop Moscow offensive without weapons supplied by the West, warns Kyiv



By AP

Published: Sat 28 May 2022, 06:32

On Friday, Moscow-backed separatists pounded Ukraine’s eastern industrial Donbass region, claiming to seize a rail hub amid growing concerns that beleaguered towns in the region would suffer the same horrors as the inhabitants of the port city of Mariupol in the weeks before its fall.

Ukrainian officials have warned that their forces would not be able to stop the Russian offensive without more sophisticated weapons supplied by the West.

Friday’s fighting focused on two key towns: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. These are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbass and where Russian-backed separatists have already controlled certain territories for eight years. Authorities say 1,500 people in Sievierodonetsk have already died since fighting began just over three months ago. The Russian-backed rebels also said they had taken the Lyman rail hub.

The governor of Luhansk warned that Ukrainian soldiers might have to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded. But he predicted a final Ukrainian victory. “The Russians will not be able to capture the Luhansk region in the coming days, as analysts predict,” Serhiy Haidai wrote on Telegram on Friday. “We will have enough forces and means to defend ourselves.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnskyy also struck a defiant tone. In his Friday night video address, he said: “If the occupiers think Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbass will be Ukrainian.

For now, Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press that “the city is being systematically destroyed – 90% of the city’s buildings are damaged.”

Striuk described conditions in Sievierodonetsk as reminiscent of the Battle of Mariupol, located in Donbass’ other province, Donetsk. Now in ruins, the port city was constantly cordoned off by Russian forces during a nearly three-month siege that ended last week when Russia claimed its capture. It is feared that more than 20,000 of its civilians are dead.

Before the fighting, Sievierodonetsk was home to around 100,000 people. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, Striuk said, huddled in shelters and largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine. At least 1,500 people have died there due to the fighting, which is in its 93rd day. The figure includes those killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated illnesses, lack of medicine or be trapped under the rubble, said the mayor.

In the northeast quarter of the city, Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to seize the Mir Hotel and the area around it, Striuk said.

Clues to Russia’s strategy for Donbass can be found in Mariupol, where Moscow is consolidating its control through measures such as state-controlled broadcast programs and revised school curricula, according to an analysis by the Institute. for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

General Phillip Breedlove, former head of the United States’ European Command for NATO, told a panel hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute on Friday that Russia appears to have “once again adjusted its goals, and it now seems that it is trying to consolidate and strengthen the lands they have rather than focusing on expanding them.”

Ukrainian analysts said Russian forces had taken advantage of delays in Western arms deliveries to step up their offensive there.

This aggressive push, however, could backfire by seriously depleting the Russian arsenal. Echoing a UK MoD assessment, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “meaning the world’s second-largest army is running out of equipment. modernized”.

Russian-backed rebels said on Friday they had taken control of Lyman, the major rail hub in Donetsk north of two other key towns still under Ukrainian control. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych acknowledged the loss Thursday evening, although a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported Friday that its soldiers had countered Russian attempts to push them back completely.

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As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations for heavy weapons, saying it was the only area in which Russia had a clear advantage.

“Without artillery, without multiple rocket launcher systems, we won’t be able to repel them,” he said.

The US Department of Defense has not confirmed a CNN report that the Biden administration is preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, possibly as early as next week. “We are certainly attentive and aware of Ukrainian requests, private and public, for what is called a multiple launch rocket system. And I will not preempt decisions that have not yet been made,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers were hoping to evacuate 100 people from a small town. It was a laborious process: many evacuees from Bakhmut were elderly or infirm and had to be carried out of apartment buildings on soft stretchers and wheelchairs.

Minibuses and vans drove through the city, picking up dozens for the first leg of a long journey west.

“Bakhmut is a high-risk area at the moment,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase. “We try to get as many people out as possible.”

To the north, neighboring Belarus – used by Russia as a staging base before the attack – announced on Friday that it was sending troops to the Ukrainian border.

Some European leaders have sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin on easing the global food crisis, exacerbated by Ukraine’s inability to ship millions of tonnes of grain and other agricultural products.

Moscow has sought to blame the food crisis on the West, calling on its leaders to lift existing sanctions.

Putin told Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Friday that Ukraine should remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe shipping, according to a Kremlin reading of their conversation; Russia and Ukraine have swapped responsibility for mines near Ukrainian ports.

Nehammer’s office said the two leaders also discussed a prisoner swap and said Putin had indicated efforts to organize one would be “intensified”.

Christi C. Elwood