Ukraine fears repeat of Mariupol horrors elsewhere in Donbass
Moscow-backed separatists pounded the industrial Donbass region in eastern Ukraine on Friday, claiming to have captured a rail hub amid growing concerns that beleaguered towns in the region will suffer the same horrors as the inhabitants of Mariupol in the weeks preceding the capture of the port.
Ukrainian officials have renewed their calls for more sophisticated weapons supplied by the West. Without it, they said, Ukrainian forces could not stop the Russian offensive.
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 the war began just over three months ago.
“Massive artillery bombardment does not stop, day and night,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press. “The city is systematically destroyed – 90% of the buildings in the city are damaged.” Striuk described conditions in Sievierodonetsk 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 war, 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 as a result of the war, which is now 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 that they were trapped under the rubble, the mayor said. An assault was underway Friday in the city’s northeast quarter, where 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 appears to be trying to consolidate and strengthen the lands they possess rather than focus on expanding them.” But the relentless assaults in the Donbass have also indicated Russia’s desire to expand there. 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. 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.
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.” In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had harsh words for the European Union, which has not agreed to a sixth round of sanctions including an embargo on Russian oil. Hungary, one of Moscow’s closest allies in the EU, is obstructing the deal.
Zelenskyy said Russia’s offensive in the Donbass could leave its communities in ashes, and he accused Moscow of pursuing “an obvious policy of genocide” through mass deportations and killings of civilians.
On Thursday, the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv, a city in the northeast, left nine dead, including a father and his 5-month-old baby, the president said. AP reporters saw the bodies of at least two dead and four injured men at a subway station where the victims were taken.
To the north, neighboring Belarus – used by Russia as a staging base before the invasion – 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.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said there was no breakthrough during his Thursday conversation with Putin.
“If you ask me if there are any openings for peace, the answer is no,” Draghi told reporters.
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 had also discussed a prisoner swap and that Putin had indicated that efforts to organize one would be “intensified”.
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