La Gaceta De Mexico - Russia tightens grip on key cities as battle for Donbas rages

Russia tightens grip on key cities as battle for Donbas rages
Russia tightens grip on key cities as battle for Donbas rages / Photo: © AFP/File

Russia tightens grip on key cities as battle for Donbas rages

The battle for control of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas raged on Sunday as Russian forces tightened their grip around the key cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.

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The situation in Lysychansk had become "significantly worse", the regional governor of the Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said on the messaging service, Telegram.

"A Russian shell fell on a residential building, a girl died and four people were hospitalised," he said.

Meanwhile, on the eastern bank of the Donets river, Russian forces "carried out assault operations in the area of the city of Severodonetsk," according to the Ukrainian general staff.

Fighting was advancing street-by-street in the city, Gaiday said.

More than three months after Moscow invaded its pro-Western neighbour, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for "direct serious negotiations" between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.

The two European leaders also "insisted on an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops" in an 80-minute phone call with the Russian leader on Saturday, the German chancellor's office said.

- 'Very difficult' -

Since failing to capture the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the war, Russia has shifted its focus to the eastern Donbas region as it attempts to consolidate areas under its control.

"The situation is very difficult, especially in those areas in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions, where the Russian army is trying to squeeze at least some result for itself," Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation late Saturday.

Earlier, Russia's defence ministry had said the "town of Krasny Liman (Moscow's name for Lyman) has been entirely liberated from Ukrainian nationalists."

Lyman lies on the road to Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, which is "now surrounded," according to a police official in Lugansk province cited by Russian state media.

But governor Gaiday insisted that "Severodonetsk has not been cut off.

"There is still the possibility to deliver humanitarian aid," he told Ukrainian television.

- 'Constant shelling' -

In Severodonetsk, where an estimated 15,000 civilians remain, a local official said "constant shelling" made it increasingly difficult to get in or out.

"Evacuation is very unsafe, it's isolated cases when we manage to get people out. Now the priority is for the wounded and people who need serious medical assistance," said Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the city's military and civil administration.

The water supply was also increasingly unstable, as a lack of electricity meant the pumps at city wells no longer functioned, he said.

Residents had gone more than two weeks without a mobile phone connection, he added.

Governor Gaiday said the sole road link to the outside world was expected to be the focus of continued Russian attacks.

"Next week will be very hard, as Russia puts all its resources into seizing Severodonetsk, or cutting off the (area) from communication with Ukraine," he said.

- Putin 'ready' to export grain -

In their call with Putin, Scholz and Macron pointed to a looming global food security crisis.

In addition to capturing key ports such as Mariupol, Russia has used its warships to cut off other cities still in Ukrainian hands, blocking grain supplies from being transported out.

Russia and Ukraine supply about 30 percent of the wheat traded on global markets.

Russia has tightened its own exports and Ukraine has vast amounts stuck in storage, driving up prices and reducing availability across the globe.

Putin has repeatedly rejected any responsibility, instead blaming Western sanctions.

But on Saturday, he told Macron and Scholz that Russia was "ready" to look for ways to allow more wheat onto the global market.

"Russia is ready to help find options for the unhindered export of grain, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports," the Kremlin quoted him as saying.

He also called for the lifting of sanctions to allow "an increase in the supply of Russian fertilisers and agricultural products" to the global market.

- Zelensky to speak to EU -

Urgent calls by Zelensky for more advanced weaponry from Ukraine's Western allies appear to paying off, with Washington agreeing to send advanced long-range rocket systems, according to US media reports.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm the plans to deliver the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, highly mobile equipment capable of firing up to 300 kilometres (186 miles) that Kyiv has said it badly needs.

But he said Washington was "still committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield".

Putin warned Macron and Scholz that ramping up arms supplies to Ukraine would be "dangerous" and risk "further destabilisation".

On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry said it had destroyed a Ukrainian armed forces arsenal in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih with "long-range high-precision missiles".

Russian forces also targeted a Ukrainian anti-air defence system near Mykolaivka in the Donetsk region, as well as a radar station near Kharkiv and five munitions depots, one of which was close to Severodonetsk.

Agreement is being held up by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close relations with Putin.