Russia almost fully controls Donbass province and now owns 20% of Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia claimed on Tuesday that it had taken control of 97% of one of the two provinces that make up Ukraine’s Donbass, bringing the Kremlin closer to its goal of fully capturing the eastern industrial heartland of coal mines and factories.

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Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow forces hold almost all of Lugansk province. And it appears that Russia now occupies about half of Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.

After abandoning its failed attempt to storm Kyiv two months ago, Russia has declared taking all of Donbass as its main objective. Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces in Donbass since 2014, and the region has borne the brunt of the Russian onslaught in recent weeks.

At the beginning of the war, Russian troops also took control of the entire Kherson region and a large part of the Zaporizhzhia region, both located to the south. Russian officials and their local representatives have spoken of plans for these regions to declare independence or be integrated into Russia.

Prior to the February invasion, Ukrainian officials said Russia controlled about 7% of the country, including the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and separatist-held areas in Donetsk and Luhansk. Last week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces now hold 20% of the country.

While the Kremlin forces have superior firepower, the Ukrainian defenders are entrenched and have shown their ability to counterattack.

Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister, said Moscow forces have seized residential areas of Sievierodonetsk and are fighting to gain control of an industrial area on the outskirts of the city and nearby towns.

Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Lysychansk have seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. They are among the few towns and villages in the Lugansk region that are still resisting the Russian invasion, which is being aided by local pro-Kremlin forces.

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Shoigu added that Russian troops were pushing their offensive towards the town of Popasna and had taken control of Lyman and Svyatohirsk and 15 other towns in the region.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak urged his people not to be discouraged by setbacks on the battlefield.

“Don’t let the news that we gave something away scare you,” he said in a video address. “It is clear that tactical maneuvers are underway. We give something away, we take something back. »

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai acknowledged that Russian forces controlled the industrial outskirts of Sievierodonetsk.

“The toughest street battles continue, with varying degrees of success,” Haidai said. “The situation is constantly changing, but the Ukrainians are repelling the attacks.”

Moscow forces also maintained their artillery barrage from Lysychansk. Haidai said Russian troops bombed a market, a school and a university building, destroying the latter. At least three people were injured, he said.

“A total destruction of the city is underway. The Russian shelling has intensified considerably over the past 24 hours. The Russians are using scorched earth tactics,” Haidai said.

While stressing Ukraine’s need to defeat Russia on the battlefield, Zelenskyy told a Financial Times conference on Tuesday that he was still open to peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He also lamented that Western sanctions “didn’t really influence the Russian position”, the FT reported.

Meanwhile, the US military has begun training Ukrainian forces on the sophisticated multiple rocket launchers the Biden administration agreed to supply last week. The Pentagon said the training was taking place at a base in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, is mounted on a truck and can carry a container with six rockets, which can travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers). Officials said it would take about three weeks of training before they could get to the front.

The war also sparked a stalemate on Tuesday between the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency and Ukrainian authorities over Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director Rafael Mariano Grossi wants to visit the Zaporizhzhia plant in southern Ukraine to help maintain its security after it was taken by Russian troops in March.

But Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-owned company that oversees the country’s nuclear power plants, said in a direct statement that Grossi was unwelcome. He said his planned tour was “another attempt to legitimize the occupier’s presence there”.

Amid fears of a global food crisis due to the war, the Kremlin has said Ukraine must remove sea mines near its Black Sea port of Odessa to allow vital grain exports to resume. from there.

But Ukrainian officials have expressed concern that removing the mines could allow forces from Moscow to attack.

David Keyton and Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Kyiv; Yuras Karmanau in Lviv; and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.

Joan J. Holland