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Russia pushes Ukrainian forces into the outskirts of a key eastern city

  • Russian forces escalate their offensive to seize the main city of Luhansk
  • Ukrainians may cut back on their spending, but they won’t give up fighting – Governor
  • Turkey, Russia study UN plan to allow Ukrainian grain exports

Kyiv/SLOVENIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces withdrew on Wednesday to the outskirts of the eastern city of Severodonetsk in the face of a fierce Russian offensive, the region’s governor said, marking another big swing in momentum in one of those regions. The bloodiest battle of the war.

Russia has concentrated its forces and firepower on the small industrial town in recent weeks to secure the surrounding province on behalf of the separatist proxies. Ukraine has vowed to fight there for as long as possible, saying the battle could help shape the course of the war.

After announcing a surprise counterattack last week, the governor of the surrounding Luhansk region said on Wednesday that most of the city was once again in the hands of the Russians.

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“…(Our forces) now only control the outskirts of the city again. But the fighting is still going on,” Serhi Gaidai told RBC-Ukraine media.

Gidayi said in an online post that Ukrainian forces still control all of the smaller twin city of Lysekhansk on the western bank of the Seversky Donets River, but that Russian forces are destroying apartment buildings there.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces have 10 times more equipment than Ukrainian forces in some parts of Severodonetsk. Ukraine wants its Western allies to speed up arms deliveries, warning that Russia may breach its lines in the east.

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“We are defending our positions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. This is a very fierce and very difficult battle, perhaps one of the most difficult of this war,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an evening speech.

“(In many ways, the fate of the Donbass is determined there,” added Zelensky.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the situation on the ground in Severodonetsk.

Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm and “discredit” its neighbor. Ukraine and its allies say Moscow launched an unprovoked war of aggression that has killed thousands of civilians and razed cities to the ground.

UN figures show that more than 7 million people have crossed the border from Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24.

“God save me”

Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province make up Donbass, which Moscow has claimed for its proxies who have controlled the eastern parts of the region since 2014. Moscow has been trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in the areas it still controls.

West of Sievierodonetsk in Sloviansk, one of the major Donbass cities in Ukrainian hands, women with young children lined up to collect aid while other residents carried buckets of water around town.

Most residents have fled, but authorities say about 24,000 are still in the city, on the way to an expected offensive by Russian forces that have regrouped in the north.

Albina Petrovna, 85, described the moment when there was an attack on the building she was staying in, smashing the windows of her home and destroying her balcony.

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“Broken glass fell on me, but God saved me,” she said. “I have scratches everywhere…”.

Russia has shifted its focus to Donbass since the defeat of its forces on the outskirts of Kyiv in March.

The Ukrainian military said that four people were killed during Russian bombing of about 20 towns in Donbass in the past 24 hours, and that its forces had killed 31 Russian soldiers. Reuters was not immediately able to verify the numbers.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, residents were clearing rubble from the previous day’s bombing. Ukraine expelled Russian forces last month from the city’s outskirts, but Russia continues to strike them sporadically.

Closed television footage showed the moment late on Tuesday evening when a suspected missile hit a shopping center in Kharkiv that housed a supermarket, scattering debris and goods. Drone footage showed a hole in the roof of the large building.

“The supporting columns were completely destroyed,” said Svetlana Diulina, the supermarket manager, adding that no one was hurt in the attack.

Fear of pills

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, and Western countries accuse Russia of creating the threat of global famine by blockading Ukraine’s ports on the Black and Azov seas. Moscow says Western sanctions are to blame for the food shortage.

Turkey is trying to mediate negotiations to open Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu received Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and said a UN-backed agreement on the ports was possible with further talks. Read more

Lavrov said Ukrainian ports could be opened, but Ukraine would have to clear them first. Ukraine dismissed the Russian assertions as “hollow words” and said Russian attacks on farmland and agricultural sites were exacerbating the crisis.

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Vitaly Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region, where Russian bombing destroyed warehouses of one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural commodity terminals over the weekend, told Reuters that Moscow was trying to scare the world into meeting its terms. Read more

The Kremlin had earlier quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that Western sanctions should be lifted so that Russian grain could reach the market. Read more

To make matters worse, the Russian-installed administration in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhya region in southern Ukraine said it plans to hold a referendum later this year on joining Russia. Russian officials in the country’s western Kherson province announced similar plans.

Some lawmakers from Russia’s ruling United Russia party have suggested uniting Donbass with Russia as well. The region has yet to announce a referendum, but the separatist leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushlin, replaced his government on Wednesday, citing the need to strengthen “integration processes”.

Ukraine and its Western allies consider any planned referendums in the occupied territories illegitimate and evidence that Russia’s real goal is to occupy the territories. Read more

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Additional reporting by Tom Palmforth, Natalia Zenets, David Leungren and Reuters offices. Writing by Himani Sarkar, Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Michael Perry, Peter Graf, Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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