Russian troops on Wednesday pressed their assault on a factory city targeted in their push to grab a swathe of eastern Ukraine, while the United States said it would supply advanced rockets to Kyiv to help it force Moscow to negotiate an end to the war.
By Pavel Polityuk and Max Hunder
KYIV – Russian troops on Wednesday pressed their assault on a factory city targeted in their push to grab a swathe of eastern Ukraine, while the United States said it would supply advanced rockets to Kyiv to help it force Moscow to negotiate an end to the war.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces, now 98 days into their invasion, were pounding infrastructure in eastern and southern regions including the symbolically important industrial city of Sievierodonetsk, the main focus of Moscow’s offensive in recent days.
President Joe Biden announced the supply of precision rocket systems and munitions that could strike at long-range Russian targets, part of a $700 million weapons package expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.
“We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” Biden wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
A senior Biden administration official said the new supplies – which comes on top of billions of dollars worth of other equipment such as drones and anti-aircraft missiles – included the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Kyiv has said is “crucial” to counter Russian missile attacks.
Moscow assessed the new US aid package “extremely negatively,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state news agency RIA Novosti.
Addressing concerns that such weapons could draw the United States into direct conflict, senior administration officials said Ukraine gave assurances the missiles would not be used to strike inside Russia.
“These systems will be used by the Ukrainians to repel Russian advances on Ukrainian territory, but they will not be used on targets in Russian territory,” one US official said.
Shortly after the US decision was announced, the Russian defence ministry said Russia’s nuclear forces were holding drills in the Ivanovo province, north-east of Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported.
Some 1,000 servicemen were exercising in intense manoeuvres using more than 100 vehicles including Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, it cited the ministry as saying.
There was no mention of the US decision to supply new weapons in the Interfax report.
Russia has also completed testing of its hypersonic Zircon cruise missile and will deploy it by the end of the year on a new frigate of its Northern Fleet, a senior military officer said on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces continued to pound northern, southern and eastern districts of Sievierodonetsk, in Luhansk, one of two provinces in the eastern Donbas region that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
If Russia captures Sievierodonetsk, and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the higher west bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, it will hold all of Luhansk, a key war aim of President Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Russian forces now control about 70% of the city, said regional governor Serhiy Gaidai. He has previously said the city has been largely reduced to rubble and that Russian shelling has made it impossible to deliver aid or to evacuate people.
“Some Ukrainian troops have retreated to more advantageous, pre-prepared positions,” Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app. He said Lysychansk was easier to defend because it is located on a hill but that Russian forces would target it with artillery and mortars once in full control of Sievierodonetsk.
The leader of the pro-Moscow Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, told TASS news agency Russian proxies had advanced slower than expected to safeguard city infrastructure and “exercise caution around its chemical factories”.
Gaidai has urged Sievierodonetsk residents not to leave bomb shelters due to what he said was a Russian air strike on a nitric acid tank. The Luhansk People’s Republic’s police force accused Ukraine’s forces of damaging it.
Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council aid agency which had long operated out of Sievierodonetsk, said up to 12,000 civilians remain trapped in the crossfire, without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity.
“The near-constant bombardment is forcing civilians to seek refuge in bomb shelters and basements, with only few precious opportunities for those trying to escape,” he said.
Ukraine says weapons sent by the United States and other countries since the start of the invasion have helped fend off Russian gains.
The new US package includes ammunition, counter fire radars, a number of air surveillance radars, additional Javelin anti-tank missiles, as well as anti-armour weapons, officials said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, accused by critics of dragging his feet in helping Ukraine, said on Wednesday Berlin would supply Kyiv with its IRIS-T medium-range surface-to-air defence system.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for more weapons while lambasting the European Union, which agreed on Monday to cut imports of Russian oil, for not sanctioning energy from Russia sooner.
The EU said it would ban imports of Russian oil by sea. Officials said that would halt two-thirds of Russia’s oil exports to Europe at first, and 90% by the end of this year.
Responding to the EU oil embargo, Russia widened its gas cuts to Europe, driving prices higher and ratcheting up its economic battle with Brussels.
The war has disrupted Ukraine’s exports of wheat and other commodities, hitting consumers with higher food prices especially in the world’s poorest countries.
Pope Francis appealed on Wednesday for all blockades on wheat exports from Ukraine to be lifted, saying grain should not be used as a “weapon of war”.
Putin launched his “special operation” on February 24 to disarm and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war to seize territory.
Ukraine accuses Russia of war crimes on a huge scale, flattening cities and killing and raping civilians. Russia denies the accusations.