Ukraine braces for Russian storm in east ahead of EU meeting


  • Luhansk governor says the situation is ‘extremely difficult’
  • The Kremlin says the captured Americans are mercenaries
  • EU to decide on Ukraine’s membership bid this week
  • Russia threatens to retaliate against Lithuania

Kyiv (Reuters) – Ukraine on Tuesday acknowledged the difficulties of fighting in its east as Russian forces regrouped after mounting pressure and making progress in two cities ahead of this week’s European Union summit expected to welcome Kyiv’s bid to join the bloc.

The governor of Luhansk region, which has seen the fiercest Russian attacks in recent weeks, said Russian forces launched a major offensive and took control of some territory on Monday despite the relative calm overnight.

“It was the calm before the storm,” Governor Serhi Gayday said.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expected Russia to escalate its attacks ahead of the European Union summit on Thursday and Friday. And he was defiant in a speech late Monday to the nation, despite noting the “difficult” fighting in Luhansk for Severodonetsk and its sister city, Lyschansk.

“We defend Lysechansk and Severodonetsk, this whole region, and the most difficult one. We have the most difficult fight there,” he said. “But we have our strong guys and girls out there.”

Gaidai said that Russian forces have taken control of most of the Severodonetsk region, with the exception of the Azot chemical plant, where it has been sheltering more than 500 civilians, including 38 children, for weeks. He said that the road linking Severodonetsk and Lysichansk to the city of Bakhmut is under constant bombardment.

Rodion Miroshnik, the Luhansk People’s Republic’s ambassador to Russia, said its forces were “moving from the south towards Lysechansk” with battles raging in a number of towns.

“The coming hours should bring about major changes in the balance of power in the region,” he said on Telegram.

Attractive stage

Russia sent tens of thousands of its soldiers to Ukraine on February 24 in what it called a “special operation” to undermine its military capabilities and root out what it describes as dangerous nationalists.

It also introduced a law making it a crime to publish “deliberately false” information or reports that would discredit the Russian military.

Dmitry Muratov, co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize and editor-in-chief of an independent Russian newspaper, has sold his Nobel medal for a record $103.5 million to help children displaced by war. His paper, which is highly critical of President Vladimir Putin, suspended operations in Russia in March after warnings about its coverage of the war. Read more

The war has entered a brutal attrition phase in recent weeks, with Russian forces concentrating on the Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donbass, which Russia claims on behalf of the separatists.

Ukraine’s military said a Russian missile in Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port on the Black Sea, which is besieged by the Russian Navy, destroyed a food depot on Monday.

The United States and its European allies provided Ukraine with arms and financial aid, but they avoided direct intervention in the conflict.

British military intelligence said Ukrainian forces claimed it was their first successful use of Western-donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles, destroying a tug that was transporting weapons and personnel to a Russian-controlled island in the Black Sea. Read more

“Ukraine’s coastal defense capability has largely neutralized Russia’s ability to control the sea and launch naval power into the northwest Black Sea,” she added.

Captured Americans

Some foreign citizens volunteered to fight for Ukraine.

The Kremlin said on Monday that two Americans held in Ukraine were mercenaries not covered by the Geneva Convention and should be held accountable for their actions. Read more

The comments by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov were the first official acknowledgment of the detention of the two, who were identified in US reports as Andy Hoen, 27, and Alexander Drake, 39.

A US State Department spokesman said they had been in contact with Russian authorities about any US citizens who may have been captured, and called on Russia and its proxies to “fulfill their international obligations” in their treatment of any captive.

This month, a separatist court sentenced two Britons and a Moroccan to death after they were caught fighting for Ukraine.

Peskov also said that NBA star Britney Greiner, who has been held in Russia for more than two months, was on trial for drug charges and was not a hostage. Read more

At least two Americans were killed in the war. Read more

International attention has focused on trying to restore Ukrainian exports of food, which are now closed by a de facto Russian blockade. Ukraine is one of the world’s major sources of grains and edible oils, which has led to fears of a global shortage.

Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions.

The war has also disrupted energy markets, including Russian oil and gas shipments to Europe, which remains the continent’s main source of energy and Russia’s primary source of income. Russia says EU sanctions have prevented it from taking back pipeline equipment.

Russia has threatened retaliation against EU member Lithuania for banning the transfer of coal, minerals, building materials and advanced technology to Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea surrounded by EU territory.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the top Lithuanian diplomat and demanded them to undo the “publicly hostile” step, otherwise Russia “reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests.” Lithuania said EU sanctions required it to impose the ban.

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Reporting by Reuters offices. Written by David Bronstrom and Lincoln Fest; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Percell

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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