Russia-Ukraine News: Live Updates – The New York Times

Russia moved closer to occupying the entirety of Lugansk, a key province in eastern Ukraine, on Saturday after its forces entered a critical eastern town still under partial Ukrainian control.

Aided in part by thermobaric warheads, one of the most formidable conventional weapons available to contemporary armies, the Russian advance into eastern Ukraine has highlighted the dividend Russia has gained by seizing of a Black Sea port and ending its attempts to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv.

This allowed the Russian military to concentrate its forces in a small pocket in eastern Ukraine, where Russian supply lines are less vulnerable; where Russian forces have tightened their control over newly captured territory; and where Ukrainian officials say their army is now considerably larger and less armed.

The latest indicator of that dividend came on Saturday, when two senior Ukrainian officials said Ukrainian and Russian forces were locked in fierce street fighting inside the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, where Russian soldiers had advanced. a few blocks from the administrative headquarters. By Saturday morning, the Russians had captured a bus station and a hotel in the northeast of the city and damaged 14 high-rise buildings in at least three bombardments overnight, the head of the military administration of the city said. Lugansk province, Serhiy Haidai.

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Ukrainian forces later repelled a second advance to the southeast of the city, the Ukrainian army general staff said in a Facebook post on Saturday evening. The last Ukrainian-controlled road to the city was still open, across a bridge over a river west of the city, said Oleh Hryhory, the provincial police chief. But there was heavy shelling around it, making access to the city extremely dangerous, Mr Hryhory said.

A railway hub with a peacetime population of around 100,000, Sievierodonetsk is the last major Ukrainian army redoubt in Lugansk province. While the city was not expected to fall imminently, Russian forces made slow but steady progress towards what would be a strategically important victory there.

Its capture would pave the way for Russian forces to target Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the last major Ukrainian cities in the Donbass region, which includes Lugansk and neighboring Donetsk, to the west. Taking them would virtually accomplish a goal set by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on the eve of his invasion of Ukraine in February. Russian-backed separatists seized control of parts of Lugansk and Donetsk in 2014, and Mr Putin initially justified his invasion as an attempt to preserve the independence of the two breakaway territories.

Russia’s entry into Sievierodonetsk follows the capture earlier this week of Lyman, another strategic town in the region.

In other signs of Russian tightening control in eastern Ukraine, Russian forces have reopened a port in Mariupol, the Black Sea port recently captured by Russia after months of devastating airstrikes and gunfire. artillery that destroyed much of the city. A ship has left the port carrying thousands of tons of scrap metal seized in the occupied city, according to Ukrainian officials and a Russian state news agency. It was the first confirmed case of the port being used since Russia took full control of Mariupol.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly promised that Ukraine will take back all of Donbass, fending off growing international calls for his country to cede territory to Moscow as part of possible peace talks to end the the war.

“Donbass will be Ukrainian,” Zelensky said in a speech Friday night. For months, Mr. Zelensky has called for heavier weapons to relieve pressure in the Donbass region and turn the tide of the war. U.S. officials said on Friday that the Biden administration had approved sending long-range multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine, a move that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said would be “a step seriously towards an unacceptable escalation”.

But for now, Ukraine is evacuating civilians near Sievierodonetsk, a sign that Ukrainian officials expect further Russian advances in the coming days, fearing that Russia will encircle key Ukrainian positions in Donbass.

On the highways of Donbass on Saturday, flatbed trucks carrying tanks and trucks towing howitzers rumbled east, suggesting the Ukrainian military was strengthening. The Ukrainian army does not disclose its numbers but has announced the arrival of Western weapons, including long-range American M777 artillery pieces.

Yet military analysts, Ukrainian officials and soldiers on the ground say the Ukrainians remain underarmed by the much larger Russian artillery arsenal.

During an engagement Thursday and Friday in a forest north of the city of Sloviansk, a dozen Ukrainian soldiers were hospitalized with shrapnel wounds after a nearby Ukrainian artillery unit was overrun by a Russian mortar crew.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Two officers injured in the swap said Western countries must step up the supply of long-range weapons, including rocket artillery, to level the playing field in the Donbass battle.

“We try to push them back but it doesn’t always work,” said Oleksandr Kolesnikov, a company commander being questioned on a stretcher in an ambulance outside a military hospital in Kramatorsk. “We don’t have enough people, not enough weapons.”

“You ask how the fighting is going,” Mr Kolesnikov added. “There was a company commander. He has been killed. There was another commander. He has been killed. A third commander was injured. I am the fourth.

The Russian advance was aided by the liberal use of one of its most damaging conventional weapons, the thermobaric warhead, according to Ukrainian military commanders, medics and battlefield video.

The weapon, a track-mounted rocket artillery system dubbed Solntsepek, or the Heatwave, fires warheads that explode with tremendous force, sending life-threatening shockwaves into bunkers or trenches where soldiers would be otherwise safe.

Missiles disperse a flammable mist or powder which is then ignited and burns in the air. The result is a powerful explosion followed by a partial vacuum, as oxygen is drawn from the air as the fuel burns.

“You feel the ground shaking,” said Col. Yevhen Shamataliuk, commander of Ukraine’s 95th Brigade, whose soldiers came under gunfire in fighting this month near Izium, a town north of west of Sievierodonetsk.

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“It’s a hollow rumble and ears ring when it explodes, more so than with regular artillery,” Colonel Shamataliuk said. “It destroys the bunkers. They simply collapse on those inside. It’s very destructive.

The United States and other militaries also deploy thermobaric warheads in missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, but analysts say the weapon’s deployment by the Russian military in Ukraine has been one of the most more systematic of recent wars.

But while Russia currently appears to hold the advantage, its advances also come with their own downsides. By extending their supply lines, Russian forces themselves become more vulnerable to counterattacks and the logistical complications that plagued Russian maneuvers early in the war.

In Russia, there are also growing concerns about whether the Russian military has the strength and resources to keep fighting.

Five opposition lawmakers in the local legislature of Primorsky province in Russia’s Far East signed an open letter to Mr Putin demanding that Russia stop fighting and withdraw its forces. Russia would be better served by using young men fighting in Ukraine to work in Russia, said the statement read by Leonid Vasyukevich, a nominal opposition Communist Party lawmaker.

Earlier this week, a diplomat from Russia’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva resigned over the war, the highest-ranking official to leave his post in opposition to the invasion.

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And while it backs the war, a popular Russian movement says the Kremlin hasn’t done enough to help its soldiers prepare for a major conflict. Led largely by women, the group provides aid to Russian soldiers, including food and medical supplies.

In Ukraine, the war has formalized a long-standing schism within the Orthodox Church. On Friday evening, the leaders of the central branch of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine formally broke with the hierarchy in Moscow.

The Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said on Facebook that it is breaking with Moscow leaders because it disagrees with Patriarch Kirill I, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. , on his support for the war.

Patriarch Kirill repeatedly blessed Russian military forces invading Ukraine. Because he is the spiritual leader of the church in both countries, many Ukrainians who died in the assault are his supporters. He also avoided condemning attacks on civilians.

The church has been under the wing of the Moscow Patriarchate for centuries, and his departure will significantly reduce the size of the Patriarch’s flock as Ukrainians attend the church in greater numbers than Russians.

But it’s unclear how many bishops and parishes in Ukraine will follow the council’s lead, or how many might try to stay with Moscow.

Conflicts within the Church, which can last for centuries, revolve around complex issues of doctrine and authority. The church in Ukraine has been embroiled in an internal split since 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and unleashed a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

Credit…Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

The report was provided by Carlotta Gall from Bakhmut, Ukraine; Maria Varenikova from Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Anton Troyanovsky from Istanbul; Erika Solomon from Lviv, Ukraine; and Nadav Gavrielov and Alexandra E. Petri from New York.

Christi C. Elwood