Russia takes small towns, aims to expand eastern Ukraine battle

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia said on Saturday that its troops and separatist fighters had captured a key railroad junction in eastern Ukraine, the second small town to fall to Moscow forces this week as they were fighting to take over the entire disputed region of Donbass.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the town of Lyman had been “completely liberated” by a joint force of Russian soldiers and Kremlin-backed separatists, who waged war in the area eastern border of Russia for eight years.

Lyman, which had a population of around 20,000 before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, serves as a regional rail hub. Ukraine’s rail system transported weapons and evacuated citizens during the war, and it was not immediately clear how the development might affect either capability.

Control of the city would give the Russian army a foothold to advance on major Ukrainian cities in Donetsk and Lugansk, the two provinces that make up Donbass. Since its failure to occupy Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Russia has focused on seizing the last parts of the region not controlled by the separatists.

“If Russia succeeded in taking control of these areas, it would most likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantial political achievement and would be presented to the Russian people as justification for the invasion,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Saturday. Evaluation.

Fighting continued on Saturday around Sievierodonetsk and near Lysychansk, twin towns which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Lugansk province. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaffirmed that the situation in the east was “difficult”, but said he was convinced that his country would prevail with the help of Western weapons and sanctions.

“If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are mistaken. Donbass will be Ukrainian,” he said.

On Tuesday, Russian troops took control of Svitlodarsk, a small municipality south of Sievierodonetsk that is home to a thermal power plant, while stepping up efforts to surround and capture the larger city.

The governor of Luhansk had warned that Ukrainian soldiers might have to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded, but said on Saturday they had repelled an attack.

“We managed to push the Russians back to their previous positions,” Governor Serhii Haidai said. “However, they are not giving up their attempts to surround our troops and disrupt logistics in the Luhansk region.”

The advance of Russian forces raised fears that residents could suffer the same horrors as residents of the southeastern port city of Mariupol in the weeks before its fall.

Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Friday that some 1,500 civilians died there during the war, including from lack of medicine or illnesses that could not be treated while the city was under siege.

Before the war, Sievierodonetsk was home to around 100,000 people. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, where 90% of buildings are damaged, the mayor told The Associated Press.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers worked to evacuate people on Friday amid a menacing soundtrack of booming air raid and artillery sirens. AP journalists saw elderly and sick civilians bundled up in soft stretchers and slowly being carried down the stairs of an apartment building in Bakhmut, a town in northeastern Donetsk province.

Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to convince reluctant residents to leave but said she and her husband would not evacuate until their son, who was in Sieverodonetsk, returned home .

“I need to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m staying here,” 66-year-old Lvova said.

A nearly three-month-long siege of Mariupol ended last week when Russia claimed the city’s completion. The city has become a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as Ukrainian determination to defend the country. It is feared that more than 20,000 of its civilians are dead.

The port of Mariupol reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing the Sea of ​​Azov off the once bustling city. Russian state news agency Tass reported that a ship bound for the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don entered the Mariupol seaport on Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s navy said on Saturday morning that Russian ships “continue to block civilian shipping in the waters of the Black and Azov Seas” along Ukraine’s southern coast, “making a zone of ‘hostilities”.

The war in Ukraine has caused global food shortages as the country is a major exporter of grain and other staples. Moscow and Kyiv have traded blame over who is responsible for keeping shipments grounded, with Russia saying Ukrainian sea mines were preventing safe passage.

The Ukrainian Naval Forces press service said in a Facebook post that two Russian missile carriers “capable of carrying up to 16 missiles” were ready for action in the Black Sea. She said only sea routes that had been established by multilateral treaties could be considered safe.

Ukrainian officials have lobbied Western nations for more sophisticated and powerful weaponry, particularly multiple rocket launcher systems. The US Department of Defense did not confirm a CNN report on Friday that the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States on Saturday called such a move “unacceptable” and called on the Biden administration to “drop claims about Ukraine’s military victory.”

A Telegram article published on the official channel of the Russian Embassy quoted Anatoliy Antonov, Moscow’s top diplomat in Washington, as saying that “the unprecedented pumping of weapons into Ukraine greatly increases the risks of an escalation of the conflict”.

On Saturday in Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that raises age limits for contracts with the Russian military. Entrepreneurs can now enter the service until the age of 50 and work until the legal retirement age, which is 65 for men and 60 for women.

Previously, Russian law set an age limit of 40 for Russians and 30 for foreigners to sign a first contract.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Russian Navy successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea. The ministry said the newly developed Zircon hypersonic cruise missile hit its target about 1,000 kilometers away.

If confirmed, the launch could cause problems for NATO travel in the Arctic and the North Atlantic. Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, and would be unstoppable with current missile defense systems.

Moscow’s claims, which could not immediately be verified, came a week after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would train new military units in the west of the country in response to applications from Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

Putin marked the annual Border Guard Day by congratulating Russian service members.

“The tasks you face are particularly important today, given the unprecedented political, economic and informational pressure on our country and the buildup of NATO military capabilities on Russia’s borders,” Putin said.


Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York and AP reporters around the world contributed.


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