KYIV – Russian troops bombed a riverside town on Friday, launching a major offensive to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-controlled territory in a province claimed by separatists.
Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have launched a massive artillery bombardment of Siviarodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-controlled strongholds in Luhansk, one of Moscow’s two southeastern provinces and its proxies declared independent states.
The city, on the opposite bank of the Sivarsky Donets River, and its twin Lishchansk, form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-occupied pocket that Russia has been trying to occupy since mid-April after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine’s General Staff says Moscow launched an attack on Siviarodonetsk but suffered casualties and was forced to retreat, describing it as a major Russian offensive operation on the stretch of frontline.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, which some military analysts see as a major push to achieve the scale-down war goal of occupying all territories claimed by pro-Russian rebels.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said through his telegram that “the Russian army has started a very intensive destruction of the city of Sevirodonetsk, the intensity of the shelling has doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying houses.”
“We don’t know how many people have died, because it’s impossible to go through every apartment and see it,” he said.
In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would be completed soon.
In an overnight speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation in Donbass, which includes the provinces of Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk, as “hell” and said the region had been “completely destroyed” by Russian aggression.
Occupying Luhansk and Donetsk will allow Moscow to claim victory after announcing last month that this is now its intention. This week it took a major step towards that goal, when Ukraine ordered its garrison to stop at the main Donbass port, Mariupol, after a three-month blockade.
Russia’s Shoigu says about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered in the past four days.
Kyiv did not confirm how many fighters had surrendered, but Britain was the first Western official to confirm that a large force had actually surrendered, with about 1,700 surrendering. Many more unknown numbers are still thought to be inside, it said.
In a video, the commander of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian unit guarding the plant, confirmed the ceasefire order and said that all civilian and wounded fighters were now out.
Denis Prokopenko, the commander, gave no further details on the fate of the other fighters, but said a process was under way to remove the dead from the warren of underground tunnels and bunkers.
“I hope that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honor,” Prokopenko said.
The Red Cross said it had registered hundreds of prisoners of war who had surrendered at the plant, but did not provide exact numbers or further details.
Kiev says it wants to arrange a prisoner exchange for Azvastal defenders who describe it as a national hero. Moscow has said it will treat them humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying that some crimes should be tried or even executed.
Food as hostage
Last week saw Sweden and Finland apply for NATO membership, the biggest change in European security in decades, although Turkey has so far said it would block the move, accusing the Nordic countries of harboring Kurdish militants.
A few weeks after the threat of retaliation, Putin appears to have stepped down, saying this week that NATO membership does not represent a threat to Finland and Sweden unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. Nonetheless, Defense Minister Shoigu said Friday that Moscow plans to strengthen its forces nearby in response to its new threat.
Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven out of the vicinity of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in recent weeks, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and the vicinity of Kiev in late March.
But they still control a large part of the south and east, and the end of the war in Mariupol means that the region is now largely untouched. Nevertheless, military analysts say that Russia is using its offensive firepower and that it may be too late to achieve its goal of capturing the entire Donbass.
As a sign of Russia’s growing war effort, Moscow’s parliament has said it will consider a bill to allow Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to sign up for the military. Putin has stopped declaring his “special military operation” a war, which would make it easier for conservatives and forces to come together.
Western powers, which have strongly condemned Russia’s actions and sought to isolate Moscow through various sanctions, are increasing support for Ukraine. The Group of Seven on Thursday agreed to pay Ukraine দিয়ে 18.4 billion in revenue because the war has destroyed its economy.
The U.S. Senate has approved nearly $ 40 billion in new aid, the largest U.S. aid package to date. This is more than a quarter of Ukraine’s pre-war annual GDP.
The White House is also working to get advanced anti-ship missiles in Ukraine to help overcome Russia’s naval blockade, which has cut off exports from one of the world’s major grain suppliers, leading to what the United Nations says could lead to a global food crisis.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has accused Russia of using food as a weapon, holding supplies “hostage” to millions of people around the world.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth at Natalia Genetas, Max Hender, Kyiv and Reuters Bureau; by Peter Graf; Editing by Nick McPhee)