, May 27 – Russia on Friday pressed its deadly offensive to capture key points in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, with more bombing of residential areas and pro-Moscow forces claiming the capture of a key town on the way to Kyiv-controlled territory.
At least nine people were killed in shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, raising fears that Russia had not lost interest in the northeastern hub even after Ukraine took back control following fierce battles.
And around 10 people were also killed in Russian strikes on a military facility in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, well away from the frontline of the offensive, the regional head of the national guard said.
Three months after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, leaving thousands dead on both sides and displacing millions of Ukrainian civilians, Moscow is focusing on the east of Ukraine after failing in its initial ambition to capture Kyiv.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated accusations that Moscow was carrying out a “genocide” in Donbas, saying its bombardment could leave the entire region “uninhabited.”
Russian forces were closing in on several cities in the region including strategically located Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which stand on the crucial route to Ukraine’s eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.
“Russia is pressuring the Severodonetsk pocket although Ukraine retains control of multiple defended sectors, denying Russia full control of the Donbas,” the British defence ministry said in its latest briefing.
Pro-Russian separatists said they had captured the town of Lyman that lies between Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk and is on the road leading to the key cities that are still under Kyiv’s control.
Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said in a video on Telegram that at least five civilians had been killed in his region — part of Donbas — in the last 24 hours alone.
Four had been killed in Severodonetsk and one in Komyshovakha, 50 kilometres (30 miles) outside Severodonetsk, he said, accusing Russia of “ceaselessly shelling residential areas.”
“People are willing to risk everything to get food and water,” said Oleksandr Kozyr, the head of the main aid distribution centre in Lysychansk, outside Severodonetsk.
“They are so psychologically depressed that they are no longer scared. All they care about is finding food,” he said.
– ‘Won’t stop the metro’ –
Oleg Sinegubov, the regional governor of Kharkiv, north of Donbas, said that nine civilians had been killed in the Russian shelling on Thursday.
A five-month-old child and her father were among the dead, while her mother was gravely wounded, he said on social media channels.
An AFP reporter in the city said the northern residential district of Pavlove Pole was hit, with plumes of smoke rising from the area.
The reporter saw several people wounded near a shuttered shopping centre, while an elderly man with injuries to his arm and leg was carried away by medics.
Kharkiv’s mayor, Igor Terekhov, said the northeastern city’s metro system, which resumed work this week after being used mainly as a shelter since the Russian invasion, would continue operating, while still providing a safe space for residents.
“We will not stop the metro, but we will allocate special sectors where you can stay and shelter from bombing,” Terekhov said.
Observers believe that Russia’s gains in over three months of war have been far more paltry than President Vladimir Putin hoped, though Moscow has gained control over a handful of cities in southern Ukraine such as Kherson and Mariupol.
The Kremlin is now seeking to tighten its grip over the parts of Ukraine it occupies, including fast-tracking citizenship for residents of areas under Russian control.
Russian authorities in Mariupol, which was taken over this month after a devastating siege that left thousands dead and reduced the city to rubble, cancelled school holidays to prepare students to switch to a Russian curriculum, according to Kyiv.
There has been speculation that Russia could seek to annex areas of eastern and southern Ukraine it now controls, possibly in purported referendums during Russian regional elections held nationwide in September.
– ‘Fear of escalation’ –
There have been tensions between Kyiv and some Western nations, in particular Germany, over a perceived reluctance to supply more weapons to Ukraine lest the conflict intensify further.
Ukraine has also been irritated by suggestions that Putin should be offered an “off ramp” to save face in a compromise deal that would see Kyiv concede some territory.
“Some partners avoid giving the necessary weapons because of fear of the escalation. Escalation, really?” Zelensky’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter, saying it was “time to respond” by giving Kyiv multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, said he feared that Putin was “continuing to chew through ground in Donbas.”
“And therefore, it is absolutely vital that we continue to support the Ukrainians militarily,” he said.
Concerns are also growing over global food shortages due to the conflict, exacerbating problems for the world’s poor at a time of rising energy prices.
Russia and Ukraine alone produce 30 percent of the global wheat supply, with grain-carrying vessels unable to leave ports in Ukraine.
Putin said in a telephone call with Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Moscow was ready to make a “significant contribution” to averting a looming food crisis if the West lifts sanctions imposed on his country over Ukraine.
Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev said Friday that Russia was looking to ramp up its production of grain to export in the coming season.
But the United States scoffed at Putin’s offer, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby accusing Moscow of “weaponizing economic assistance.”