The Russian military has “fully occupied” the main Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk after weeks of fighting, the mayor said on Saturday, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow could send nuclear missiles to Belarus within months.
The capture of the industrial center of Severodonetsk is a major strategic victory for Moscow as it seeks to gain full control over the east of the country.
It has been the scene of fighting for weeks, but the Ukrainian army said on Friday that its underprivileged troops would withdraw to better defend the neighboring city of Lysychansk.
“The city is completely occupied by the Russians,” Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Saturday.
A few hours earlier, pro-Moscow separatists said Russian forces and their allies had invaded Lysychansk, which lies across the river from Severodonetsk.
“There are currently street fights going on,” a representative of the separatists, Andrei Marochko, said on Telegram, in a claim that could not be independently verified.
In St. Petersburg, Putin said on Saturday that in the coming months Russia would provide Iskander-M missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to Belarus, just as he received Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
He also offered to upgrade Belarus’ warplanes to enable them to carry nuclear weapons, in comments broadcast on Russian television.
Putin has repeatedly referred to nuclear weapons since his country launched a military operation in Ukraine on February 24, in what the West has seen as a warning to the West not to intervene.
Trek in Belarus
Ukraine said it had come under “massive bombing” early Saturday morning from neighboring Belarus, which, although a Russian ally, is not officially involved in the conflict.
Twenty rockets “fired from Belarus territory and from the air” were aimed at the village of Desna in the northern Chernigiv region, Ukraine’s Northern Military Command said.
It said infrastructure was affected, but no casualties had yet been reported.
Belarus has provided Moscow logistical support since the February 24 invasion, particularly in the first few weeks, and, like Russia, has been the target of Western sanctions but is not officially involved in the conflict.
“Today’s strike is directly related to the Kremlin’s efforts to involve Belarus as a combatant in the war in Ukraine,” Ukraine’s intelligence agency said.
‘Ukraine can win’
Four months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, they have concentrated on the eastern Donbas region and have gradually made a profit despite fierce resistance.
By taking Lysychansk, Russia could turn its attention to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk further west in its bid to capture the Donbas, the industrial heart of Ukraine.
The Russian breakthrough came on the eve of a week of frenetic Western diplomacy, as US President Joe Biden flew to Europe for a G7 summit starting Sunday, and NATO talks later in the week.
“Ukraine can win and it will win,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement on the eve of the summit. But for that they need our support.
“This is not the time to give up Ukraine,” he added.
Western allies will take stock of the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed against Moscow so far, consider possible new aid to Ukraine and focus on longer-term reconstruction plans.
The European Union expressed strong support on Thursday in granting candidate status to Ukraine, although the road to membership is long.
Moscow dismissed the EU decision as a move to “retain Russia geopolitically”.
Evacuation of the Azot factory
As in the southern port city of Mariupol before it, the Battle of Severodonetsk devastated the city.
On Saturday, Severodonetsk mayor Striuk said civilians had begun evacuating the chemical plant in Azot, where hundreds of people had been hiding from Russian shelling.
“These people have spent nearly three months of their lives in basements and shelters,” he said. “That’s emotionally and physically tough.”
They would now need medical and psychological support, he added.
Pro-Moscow separatists said Russian forces and their allies had taken control of the Azot factory and “evacuated” more than 800 civilians sheltering there.
The mainly Russian-speaking Donbas has long been a focus of Russia.
Since 2014, it has been partially controlled by pro-Moscow separatists, who have established self-declared breakaway republics in Lugansk and Donetsk.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country since the invasion, most of them to neighboring Poland. Some foreigners have gone the other way to fight.
Russia said on Saturday its troops had killed up to 80 Polish fighters in attacks on a factory in Konstantinovka in the Donetsk region, a claim that could not be verified.
Russia has also stepped up its offensive in the northern city of Kharkov in recent days.
An AFP team on Saturday spotted a 10-storey administrative building in the city center that was hit by rockets overnight, causing a fire but no casualties.
It had already been bombed, prompting a soldier at the scene to remark, “The Russians are finishing what they started.”
On Friday, the same reporters found a stray dog eating human remains in the town of Chuguiv, southeast of Kharkov, where six people were killed in an attack earlier this week.
(This story was not edited by DailyExpertNews staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)