Russia moves closer to taking control of eastern Ukraine province

Ukrainian forces desperately tried on Tuesday to block a full Russian takeover of one of the country’s two eastern provinces, with Russian troops clawing back further gains even as European leaders agreed to a partial oil embargo aimed at starving the country. gigantic Moscow war machine.

A combined force of Russian troops, Chechen fighters and pro-Moscow separatists pushed deeper into Severodonetsk, the Ukrainian government’s seat of power in Luhansk province, seizing a significant part of a city which was almost completely destroyed in the fighting.

“Unfortunately, the front line divides the city in two. But the city is still defending itself, the city is still Ukrainian, our soldiers are defending it,” Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said in an interview with a Ukrainian broadcaster on Tuesday. He urged residents to stay in their shelters, adding that aid stocks would last for a few more days.

Earlier, the leader of the self-proclaimed dissident Moscow-backed Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, said a third of Severodonetsk was in Russian hands, adding that his forces controlled 95% of Luhansk’s territory.

A Russian armored unit is deployed along a road lined with shell-damaged buildings near the city of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine.

(Maxar Technologies)

“Our offensive may not be going as fast as we would like,” Pasechnik said in an interview with Russian news agency Tass. “But above all, we want to preserve the city’s infrastructure as much as possible.”

Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russian assault had already destroyed all “critical infrastructure” in Severodonetsk. Last week, another city official said about 90% of the city’s residential buildings had been damaged.

Amid the fighting, two Russian soldiers were found guilty of war crimes by a Ukrainian court, which each sentenced them to 11 and a half years in prison. Alexander Bobykin and Alexander Ivanov were accused of bombing civilian buildings in the Kharkiv region on February 24, the first day of the Russian invasion. This is the second war crimes trial since the start of the conflict.

As the battle for Severodonetsk intensifies, up to 12,000 civilians “remain caught in the crossfire without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity”, Jan Egeland, Secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s aid group.

“I am horrified to see Severodonetsk, the thriving city where we had our operational headquarters, become the epicenter of a new chapter in the brutal war in Ukraine,” he said, adding that “the almost constant shelling “had left the civilians “precious treasures”. few opportunities” to escape and that the fighting had made it impossible to deliver aid.

“We cannot save lives in the rain of grenades,” Egeland said.

In grim proof of his words, French journalist Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff, 32, was killed on Monday when Russian shelling of a road outside Severodonetsk hit a vehicle evacuating civilians from the city, officials said Ukrainians and French.

The attack prompted Ukrainian officials to halt evacuations, said Striuk, the mayor.

In his overnight address to the nation, Zelensky acknowledged the “extremely difficult” situation in the eastern Donbass region, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, where he said “the maximum combat power of the Russian army is now reunited”.

Woman and daughter waving goodbye to a passenger on a train

A girl on an evacuation train in eastern Ukraine waves to her mother and sister as she prepares to leave for a safer part of the country.

(Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Zelensky also accused Moscow of blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, preventing the export of 22 million tonnes of grain, a move he said could exacerbate a global food crisis.

“This is the volume that needed to enter the overseas market. And Russia’s blockade of our exports destabilizes the situation on a truly global scale,” he said.

At a press conference in Bahrain on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if Ukraine cleared its coastal waters, the Russian navy would guarantee the passage of grain ships.

“If this problem is solved (…) then on the high seas, Russian naval forces will ensure the unhindered passage of these ships to the Mediterranean Sea and further to their destinations,” Lavrov said, adding that “everything which depends on [Russia] is guaranteed.”

Food supplies are under fire as the European Union approved a sixth round of sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow and depriving it of funds to continue the war. The package includes an embargo on maritime deliveries of Russian oil by the end of the year, which would halt around two-thirds of Moscow’s exports to Europe. The required unanimous consent of all 27 EU states has been hard won, with landlocked countries, particularly Hungary, successfully demanding that pipeline oil deliveries be excluded from the ban.

“We certainly cannot prevent Russia from selling its oil to someone else,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Brussels on Tuesday. “We are not that powerful, but we are the most important customer for Russia.”

Other sanctions include shutting down Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, SWIFT, the international money transfer network, as well as banning Russian public broadcasters.

Leaders attending a European Union summit

European Council President Charles Michel, center right, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, center left, talk during a European Union summit on Tuesday.

(Olivier Matthys/Associated Press)

On the ground in Ukraine, Moscow seeks to consolidate its control of the conquered territory. In the besieged city of Mariupol, the target of a Russian assault that ended earlier this month when Ukrainian resistance fighters abandoned their positions, the Moscow-based separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said the separatist region would have its own “Merchant Marine.”

Denis Pushilin said ships still in Mariupol port – Ukrainian or foreign – would be requisitioned and reflagged.

“Some of the ships will be transferred under the jurisdiction” of the breakaway republic, Pushilin told Tass on Tuesday. “The relevant decisions have already been made. The flags that will be on it are also already clear.

And in the Russian-controlled Kherson region, a Moscow-appointed official said on Tuesday that the region would soon become part of Russia, according to a report by Russian news agency RIA Novosti, which said the region would be integrated into the Russian banking system.

Ukrainian officials fear a similar scenario is unfolding in Donbass, where Kyiv’s grip is steadily shrinking as its forces await deliveries of Western weapons, including US long-range rocket systems. President Biden said on Monday that he would not send any weapons to Ukraine that could reach targets inside Russia.

The large-scale evacuation of civilians from towns and villages in Donbass accelerated on Tuesday ahead of an expected offensive on Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the two towns in Donetsk province whose capture would allow Russian troops to encircle a large part of the Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian volunteers and soldiers rounded up people – especially the elderly and infirm – and organized transport to Kramatorsk and, further west, to the rail hub of Dnipro. Special trains transported residents to safer areas further west. In some cases, volunteers hoisted evacuees in wheelchairs onto trains at Dnipro station. Those who had just arrived from the east were taken to shelters for the night.

“We’re just happy to come out alive – the world needs to know what’s going on here,” said Nina Shatanko, 50, from Slovyansk, who was boarding a train for central Ukraine after being evacuated with her son, Oleksiy, 14. , and his mother-in-law, Elena Shatanko, 88.

The boy stared at the waiting train. Her exhausted grandmother was silent as she rested in a wheelchair at the station, waiting for the next move.

“It’s very hard for both of them to have to give up everything and move,” Shatanko said. “But what choice did we have? Sloviansk is terrible now – bombing all the time. Nobody wants to die.”

Like many other families, hers had already suffered relocation in 2014, when pro-Russian forces seized part of Donbass, sparking an eight-year war that killed more than 14,000 people and left the divided area before the current invasion.

She said the stress had been too much for her husband, who died three years ago.

“Who would have thought this would happen again?” Shatanko asked. “And this time it’s much worse. …

“Staying in Sloviansk now just wasn’t possible. Maybe we can go back one day. I just don’t know.

McDonnell reported from Dnipro and Bulos from Beirut.

Joan J. Holland