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Russian troops pushed further into a key town in eastern Ukraine and fought street by street with Kyiv forces on Monday in a battle that the mayor said left the town in ruins and drove out dozens thousands of people from their homes.
Military analysts described the fight for Sievierodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin. The city is key to Russian efforts to quickly complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of Donbass – before more Western weapons arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defence.
Weapons from the West have already helped forces in Kyiv thwart a Russian advance on the capital in the early weeks of the war. That failure forced Moscow to withdraw, regroup and pursue the more limited goal of seizing Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists had already held swaths of territory and had been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years.
“The Kremlin felt that it could not afford to waste time and should use the last chance to expand the territory controlled by the separatists, because the arrival of Western weapons in Ukraine could make this impossible. “, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
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But in a potential setback for Ukraine, President Joe Biden appeared to dismiss reports that the United States was planning to send long-range rocket systems to the country.
In addition to pleading for arms with allies, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also repeatedly insisted that European countries and others must punish Russia for its aggression, with sanctions and embargoes on the sector. lucrative energy company from Moscow. In a video address Monday to European Union leaders, Zelenskyy called on the bloc’s 27 nations to target Russian oil exports, so that Moscow “feels the price of what it is doing against Ukraine.”
The leaders are considering an embargo on Russian oil, but are struggling to find a consensus.
Russia has also sought to use its energy exports to its advantage, cutting off natural gas to a handful of European countries in what was seen as an effort to punish and divide the West over its support for Ukraine. In its latest decision, Russian gas giant Gazrpom said it would cut off gas supplies to Dutch gas trader GasTerra from Tuesday.
The concentration of the Russian army on Sievierodonetsk has already left the city “completely ruined”, said Mayor Oleksandr Striuk. Artillery barrages destroyed critical infrastructure and damaged 90% of buildings, and electricity and communications were largely cut off in a city that was once home to 100,000 people.
“The number of casualties is increasing hour by hour, but we are unable to count the dead and injured amid the street fighting,” Striuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview, adding that troops from Moscow had advanced a few blocks towards the city center. .
He said only about 12,000 to 13,000 residents remained, sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape Russian bombardment – a situation reminiscent of the siege of Mariupol which trapped residents and resulted in some of the worst suffering of war.
Striuk estimated that 1,500 civilians have died in his town since the start of the war, due to Russian attacks as well as dire conditions, including lack of medicine or medical care. More than 20,000 deaths are feared in Mariupol.
A 32-year-old French journalist, Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, died on Monday near Sievierodonetsk when he was hit by shrapnel while covering Ukrainians evacuating the area, according to his employer, French broadcaster BFM TV. .
Beyond the lengthy sieges of cities, Russian troops have also been accused of carrying out targeted killings and other atrocities in areas they briefly held around Kyiv at the start of the war. On Monday, prosecutors submitted the war’s first rape case to court – the last step before a trial begins. The 31-year-old Russian soldier, accused of killing a man and raping his wife in Bohdanivka, a village northeast of Kyiv, will face trial in absentia, officials said.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces had reinforced their positions on the northeastern and southeastern outskirts of Sievierodonetsk, 145 kilometers (90 miles) south of the Russian border in an area that is the last pocket of Ukrainian government control in Luhansk.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were also pushing towards nearby Lysychansk. Besides the journalist, two civilians were killed in the latest Russian bombardment, he said.
Three civilians were also killed on Monday in the Donetsk region, which together with Lugansk forms the Donbass, the governor said. Authorities in Kharkiv have reported one death in the latest shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city.
The Russian advance to Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk across the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River is part of an all-out push, Zhdanov said.
The intensity of the latest fighting and the fact that Russia sent troops from their Far East surprised the Ukrainians, who are trying to hold out until more weapons can arrive, Zhdanov said.
On Monday, Biden told reporters there were no plans for the United States to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, amid reports that the move is being considered.
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Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said it was a “reasonable” decision.
He said that “otherwise, if our cities were attacked, the Russian armed forces would carry out their threat and strike the centers where such criminal decisions are made.”
Medvedev added that “some of them are not in Kyiv”.
Russian pressure also continued in the south on Monday. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said an artillery strike at a shipyard in the southern port of Mykolaiv destroyed Ukrainian armored vehicles stationed there.
In the Kherson region, the deputy head of the regional administration installed in Russia, Kirill Stremousov, told the Russian state news agency Tass that grain from last year’s harvest was being delivered to Russian buyers. , adding that “obviously there is a lot of grain here.” Ukraine accused Russia of looting grain from territories held by its forces, and the United States alleged that Moscow was jeopardizing the supply world food by preventing Ukraine from exporting its harvest.
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Russia, meanwhile, has pressed the West to lift sanctions against it as it seeks to shift blame for the growing food crisis – which has led to soaring prices in Africa.
Zelenskyy urged France not to succumb to such “blackmail” as the Ukrainian president met with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on Monday.
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