Russian forces are close to capturing the eastern Ukrainian capital, Severodonetsk, on Wednesday, but Kiev hopes to deter their attackers by promising a more advanced US rocket system to help them defend themselves.
“The Russians control 70 percent of Severodonetsk,” Lugansk region Governor Sergei Gade announced in a telegram, with Ukrainian forces withdrawing to a ready position.
“If in two or three days, the Russians take control of Severodonetsk, they will place artillery and mortars and bomb Lisichansk more intensely,” he said.
A major industrial center and the last pocket of resistance with Lysichansk in the eastern Lugansk region, Severodonetsk has become a target of huge Russian firepower since its failed attempt to occupy Kyiv.
Oleksandr Motuzianik, a spokesman for Ukraine’s defense ministry, said “street fighting” was taking place in Severodonetsk and that the Russians had reached the city center.
“Ukraine’s armed forces are actively resisting them,” he said.
As a stimulus for foreign Ukrainian military forces, President Joe Biden has confirmed that more U.S. weapons are on the way to allow Ukraine to “hit the target more precisely.”
The new weapon is the Himmars Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS, a mobile unit that can launch multiple precision-guided missiles simultaneously.
These are the focus of the $ 700 million package that will be unveiled Wednesday, including air-surveillance radar, more javelin short-range anti-tank rockets, artillery ammunition, helicopters, vehicles and spare parts, a U.S. official said.
With a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometers), they would allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind the Russian line.
‘Fuel in the fire’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of “adding fuel to the fire”, saying “such supplies” did not encourage Kiev to resume peace talks.
Biden said the United States would not support an attack inside Russia, writing in the New York Times: “We do not want a war between NATO and Russia.”
Later, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Ukraine had promised not to use new missiles inside Russia – and warned of a protracted conflict.
He told a news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that “as much as we can assess now, we are still looking forward to months of conflict.”
While some analysts have suggested that Himers could be a “game-changer”, others warn that they should not be expected to turn the tables abruptly, at least because Ukrainian troops need time to learn how to use them effectively.
However, after 96 days of fighting, their morale may improve.
“If you know you have a heavy weapon behind you, everyone’s spirits will rise,” a Ukrainian fighter on the frontline told AFP before the announcement.
In an intelligence briefing, Western officials said Russia was “growing but gaining considerable stability” but that there would be “many more challenges to come” after taking over Severodonetsk.
“There are some river crossings that need to be completed after the (Ukraine-controlled) pocket closure and we’ve seen before how difficult those river crossings are.”
AFP reporters in the town of Sloviansk, west of Severodonetsk, saw buildings destroyed in a rocket attack that killed three and injured six.
And on Wednesday, at least one person was killed and two others were injured in a landslide between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, AFP reported.
The European Union also sent arms and cash to Ukraine as it imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow.
Germany said on Wednesday it would provide an air defense system capable of protecting a major city from Russian airstrikes, although it would take months to get to the frontline.
European Union leaders this week agreed to ban most Russian oil imports but reduced the likelihood of a Russian gas shutdown on which many member states rely heavily.
Moscow says a “reorganization” is under way to find an alternative destination for its oil, as it has gone “to reduce the negative consequences.”
Sanctions are biting – a panel of investors said Wednesday that Russia has failed to deposit 1.9 million in a sovereign bond.
And Russian energy giant Gazprom says its gas exports to countries outside the former Soviet Union have fallen by more than a quarter year-on-year between January and May after losing many European clients.
Russia has sought to get closer to sanctions by demanding payment for gas in rubles, cutting off refusing countries.
Denmark is set to become the latest target on Wednesday, after the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.
Just weeks after neighboring Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO as a defense against Russian aggression, Denis has already voted to overturn the country’s opt-out on the EU’s general defense policy.
Grain as a weapon
Russia’s February 24 attack killed thousands and forced millions of Ukrainians to flee, but there is also the risk of a global food crisis.
Ukraine – one of the world’s major producers – will probably export half of what it exported in the previous season, according to the Ukraine Grain Association (UGA).
At the Vatican, Pope Francis appealed against the use of grain as a “weapon of war.”
Leaders from France, Germany and Italy have called on Putin to end Russia’s blockade of the port of Odessa in recent days.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the solution to the crisis, which began with the lifting of sanctions, depended on the West and Kiev.
In Kiev, meanwhile, Ukrainian football fans were ready to watch their national team’s first official match after the Russian attack, facing Scotland in the World Cup qualifiers in Glasgow on Wednesday.
“I hope to win,” 44-year-old Army serviceman Andrew Veres told AFP.
“These days it’s very important for the country, for all people, for those who are fans and even for those who aren’t.”
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)