Russia pushes to block eastern Ukraine’s second city

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Russian forces are trying to blockade a town in eastern Ukraine, the region’s governor says, after a relentless assault on a nearby town forced Ukrainian troops to start withdrawing after weeks of fighting intense.

Russia also launched missile attacks on areas away from the heart of the eastern battles.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said on Facebook that Russian forces were trying to blockade the city of Lysychansk from the south.

The city sits next to Sievierodonetsk, which endured relentless assaults and house-to-house fighting for weeks.

(PA graphics)

Russian news agency Interfax quoted a spokesman for the separatist forces, Andrei Marochko, as saying that Russian troops and separatist fighters had entered Lysychansk and fighting was taking place in the heart of the city.

There was no immediate comment on the Ukrainian side’s claim

Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk were the focal point of the Russian offensive aimed at capturing the entire Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and destroying the Ukrainian army defending it – the most capable and strongest segment veteran of the country’s armed forces.

The two cities and their surroundings are the last major pockets of Ukrainian resistance in the Lugansk region, 95% of which are under the control of Russian and local separatist forces.

The Russians and separatists also control about half of the Donetsk region, the second province of Donbass.

Russian bombardments reduced most of Sievierodonetsk to rubble and reduced its population from 100,000 to 10,000.

Ukrainian soldiers are holed up in the huge Azot chemical plant on the outskirts of town, along with around 500 civilians.

A separatist representative, Ivan Filiponenko, said the forces evacuated 800 civilians from the factory overnight, Interfax reported.

The ruins of the sports complex of the National Technical University in Kharkiv, Ukraine
The ruins of the sports complex of the National Technical University in Kharkiv, Ukraine (Andrii Marienko/AP)

After Mr Haidai said on Friday that Ukrainian forces had started to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk, military analyst Oleg Zhdanov said some of the troops were heading towards Lysychansk.

But the Russian measures to cut off Lysychansk will give little respite to these retreating troops.

About 600 miles to the west, four Russian rockets hit a “military object” in Yaroviv, Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy said.

He did not give further details on the target, but Mr Yaroviv has a large military base used to train fighters, including foreigners who have volunteered to fight for Ukraine. This base was hit by Russian rockets in March, killing 35 people.

The Lviv region, although far from the front lines, was hit by other rockets during the war, destroying fuel storage areas.

About 30 Russian rockets were fired Saturday morning at the Zhytomyr region in central Ukraine, killing a Ukrainian soldier, regional governor Vitaliy Buchenko said.

In the north, around 20 rockets were fired from Belarus at the Chernihiv region, the Ukrainian army said.

Ukraine’s air command said Russian Tu-22 long-range bombers had been deployed from Belarus for the first time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shake hands as they meet in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shake hands Saturday in St. Petersburg (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The neighboring country hosts Russian military units and was used as a staging ground before Russia invaded Ukraine, but its own troops did not cross the border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday in St. Petersburg and told him in a televised part of the meeting that Russia would supply Belarus with the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system in the coming months.

Mr Putin noted that the missiles can carry nuclear as well as conventional warheads.

Russia launched several Iskander missiles at Ukraine during the war.

A senior US defense official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity, on Friday called the Ukrainians’ departure from Sievierodonetsk a “tactical retrograde” to shore up forces in positions where they can better defend themselves.

This will add to Ukraine’s efforts to keep Russian forces pinned down in a small area for longer, the official said.

After a failed attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv at the start of the invasion which began on February 24, Russian forces have focused on Donbass, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014 .

After repeated requests from Ukraine to its Western allies for heavier weapons to counter Russia’s firepower advantage, four US medium-range rocket launchers have arrived, with four more on the way. .

Russia Ukraine War
A local resident shows her damaged house in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The top US defense official said on Friday that more Ukrainian forces were training outside Ukraine to use High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and should return to their country with the weapons by mid-July.

Rockets can travel about 45 miles. 18 American coastal and river patrol boats will also be sent.

The official said there was no evidence that Russia succeeded in intercepting what has been a steady flow of military aid to Ukraine from the United States and other countries.

Russia has repeatedly threatened to hit, or even claimed to have hit, such shipments.

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