Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky paid his first visit to the war-torn country on Sunday since the start of the Moscow offensive, as Russian forces tightened their grip on key cities in the Donbass region.
After visiting Kharkiv, Zelensky announced that he had fired the security chief of the northeastern city in a rare public rebuke.
Zelensky said the man had been fired “for not working to defend the city from the first day of full-scale war, but only to think about himself” and that others had worked “very effectively”, the former chief did not.
Although the president did not name the official, Ukrainian media reports identified him as Roman Dudin, head of the SBU security services in the Kharkiv region.
Earlier, Zelensky’s office posted a video of the president wearing a bullet-proof vest while inspecting destroyed buildings in and around Kharkiv.
With the war devastating much of his country, Ukraine’s president is set to speak via video link with European Union leaders in Brussels on Monday as they try to break the deadlock over Russia’s oil embargo.
Russia, after failing to capture the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the war and then retreating from the Kharkiv region, has shifted its focus to the eastern Donbass region.
Its forces said Saturday they have captured the rival town of Lehman and are increasing pressure on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk.
Zelensky has been in Kiev since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“In this war, the occupiers are trying to get at least some results,” Zelensky said in a telegram post on Sunday.
“But they should have understood long ago that we would protect our land until the last man,” he added.
Although one-third of the Kharkiv region was under Russian control, “we will definitely liberate the whole area,” Zelensky said. “We are doing everything we can to prevent this aggression.”
The situation in Lysichansk has become “significantly worse,” Sergei Guide, regional governor of the Lugansk region, said in a telegram.
“A Russian shell fell on a residential building, a girl died and four others were hospitalized,” he said.
According to the Ukrainian General Staff, on the other side of the Donetsk River, Russian forces “conducted an attack in the area of the city of Severodonetsk.”
Guide said the fighting in the city was advancing on the streets.
Jelensky, in his daily speech, described a scene of devastation in Severodonetsk, saying “all important infrastructure has already been destroyed … more than two-thirds of the city’s housing stock has been completely destroyed.”
In the troubled city, which is home to an estimated 15,000 civilians, a local official says “constant shelling” has made it increasingly difficult to get in or out.
Alexander Struk, head of the city’s military and civilian administration, said: “The eviction is very unsafe, it is an isolated incident when we can evacuate people.
The water supply is also becoming increasingly unstable, and residents have been without mobile phone connections for more than two weeks, he added.
On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had destroyed the arsenal of the Ukrainian armed forces in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih with “long-range high-precision missiles.”
Russian forces have targeted a Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense system near Mykolaivka in the Donetsk region, as well as a radar station near Kharkiv and five weapons depots near Severodonetsk.
During his visit to Kharkiv, Zelensky discussed restructuring plans with local officials, saying there was room for “new faces” for areas devastated by the Russian attack.
According to local officials, more than 2,000 apartment blocks in the region have been completely or partially destroyed by Russian shelling.
In Kharkiv, customers were returning to the well-known Crystal Cafe in Central Public Park after it reopened at the end of April.
Residents come to have coffee, a bite or a sample of “Biloshka” ice cream, a crystal specialty the seller has been serving since the 1960s.
“We need to maintain employment. The city is slowly recovering,” the cafe’s manager, Eleona Castrova, 36, told AFP.
The menu has been cut due to supply problems and the locale is working with fewer staff, dropping from 30 or 40 to seven or eight before the war.
Far from the city center, Saltivska, where Russian shells are constantly falling, the environment is different.
“I’m not saying people are buying a lot. People don’t have the money,” said Vitaly Kozlov, 41, who sells eggs, meat and vegetables locally.
Volodymyr Savidlo, 82, told AFP he had “no pension” and that he came “once a week” from his garden “once a week” to sell things like onions, dill and flowers.
When Zelensky speaks to EU leaders at their emergency summit on Monday, he will push them to “kill Russian exports” if they want to increase international pressure on Moscow.
A new round of European sanctions has been blocked by Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, has close ties to Russia’s Putin.
The landlocked country is heavily dependent on Russian crude oil supplied through the Druzhba pipeline.
Hungary has asked for at least four years and 800 million euros ($ 860 million) in EU funding to adapt its refineries and increase pipeline capacity for alternative suppliers such as Croatia.
But under a new proposal put to national negotiators on Sunday, the Druze pipeline could be dropped from a sanctions package that would only target oil sent to the EU by tankers.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)