Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made his first trip to the war-torn east since the invasion of Moscow on Sunday, as Russian forces tightened their grip on key cities in the Donbas region.
After visiting Kharkiv, Zelensky announced that he had fired the northeastern city’s security chief in a rare public reprimand.
Zelensky said the man had been fired “because from the first days of the large-scale war he had not worked to defend the city, but only thought of himself”, and that while others had toiled “very effectively”, the former chief did not. had done.
Although the president did not name the official, Ukrainian media identified him as Roman Dudin, the head of the SBU security service in the Kharkiv region.
Earlier, Zelensky’s office posted a video on Telegram of the president wearing a bulletproof vest while looking at destroyed buildings in and around Kharkov.
With war devastated much of his country, the Ukrainian president will speak via video link to European Union leaders in Brussels on Monday as they try to break a deadlock over a Russian oil embargo.
Russia, which failed to take the capital Kiev in the early stages of the war and subsequently withdrew from the Kharkiv area, has shifted its focus to the eastern Donbas region.
The troops said on Saturday they had taken the city of Lyman in the disputed region and increased pressure on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
Zelensky has been based in Kiev since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his large-scale attack on Ukraine.
“In this war, the occupiers are trying to squeeze at least some result out of it,” Zelensky said in a later Telegram post on Sunday.
“But they should have understood long ago that we will defend our country to the last man,” he added.
While a third of the Kharkiv region remained under Russian control, “we will certainly liberate the entire area,” Zelensky said. “We are doing everything we can to contain this offensive.”
The situation in Lysychansk had gotten “significantly worse,” the regional governor of the Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said on Telegram.
“A Russian shell fell on a residential building, a girl died and four people were hospitalized,” he said.
On the other bank of the Donets River, Russian troops “performed assault operations in the area of the city of Severodonetsk,” the Ukrainian General Staff said.
Fighting in the city progressed street after street, Gaiday said.
Zelensky, in his daily speech, described a devastating scene in Severodonetsk, saying: “All critical infrastructure has already been destroyed… More than two-thirds of the city’s housing stock has been completely destroyed.”
In the ravaged city, where an estimated 15,000 civilians remain, a local official said “constant shelling” was making it increasingly difficult to get in or out.
“Evacuation is very unsafe, they are isolated cases where we manage to get people out. Now the priority is the injured and people who need serious medical attention,” said Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the city’s military and civil administration. .
The water supply is also increasingly unstable, and residents have been without cell phone connections for more than two weeks, he added.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday it had destroyed an arsenal of Ukrainian armed forces in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih with “high-precision long-range missiles”.
Russian forces also attacked a Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense system near Mykolaivka in the Donetsk region, as well as a radar station near Kharkiv and five ammunition depots, one near Severodonetsk.
During his trip to Kharkov, Zelensky discussed reconstruction plans with local officials and said there was a chance that the areas devastated by Russian attacks would “take on a new face”.
More than 2,000 apartment buildings have been partially or completely destroyed by Russian shelling in the region, according to local officials.
In Kharkiv itself, after the reopening in late April, customers returned to the well-known Crystal Cafe in the central public park.
Residents stop by for a coffee, snack or to sample the “Biloshka” ice cream, a Crystal specialty the vendor has been serving since the 1960s.
“We have to maintain employment. The city is coming back little by little,” cafe manager Alyona Kostrova, 36, told AFP.
The menu has been shortened due to supply issues and the venue operates with a reduced workforce, down to seven or eight from 30 or 40 pre-war.
Far from the city center in the Saltivska district, where Russian shells keep falling, the atmosphere is different.
“I wouldn’t say people buy a lot. People don’t have money,” said Vitaly Kozlov, 41, who sells eggs, meat and vegetables locally.
Volodymyr Svidlo, 82, told AFP he has “no pension” and comes “once a week” to sell items such as onions, dill and flowers from his garden to make ends meet.
When Zelensky speaks to EU leaders at their emergency summit on Monday, he will urge them to “destroy Russian exports” as he tries to increase international pressure on Moscow.
A new round of European sanctions has been held up by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close relations with Russia’s Putin.
The landlocked country relies heavily on Russian crude supplied through the Druzhba pipeline.
Hungary has asked for at least four years and 800 million euros ($860 million) in EU funds to upgrade its refineries and increase pipeline capacity for alternative suppliers, such as Croatia.
But under a new proposal presented to national negotiators on Sunday, the Druzhba pipeline could be excluded from a sanctions package, which would target only oil transported by tankers to the EU.
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