KYIV, Ukraine, June 6, 2022 (AFP) – Ukrainian troops have beaten back Russian forces to control half of a flashpoint eastern city, local officials said, as President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the front lines to support his country’s “true heroes”.
As the see-saw battle raged on for the strategically important city of Severodonetsk — the largest in the Lugansk region not under Russian control — more help was promised from abroad.
The United Kingdom said it would follow the United States and send long-range missile systems to Ukraine, defying warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin against supplying Kyiv with the advanced weapons.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes since Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine on February 24.
Fighting since April has been concentrated in the east of the country, where Russian forces have made slow but steady advances after being beaten back from other parts of Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv.
Ukraine’s gains in Severodonetsk, announced by regional governor Sergiy Gaiday, would represent a significant advance by Kyiv’s troops, who earlier appeared on the verge of being driven out of the city.
“The Armed Forces have cleared half of Severodonetsk and are moving forward,” Gaiday posted on Telegram.
However, he warned in a video in the same post that a major new Russian push on the industrial hub appeared imminent.
– ‘It’s a horror show’ –
Across a river in the neighbouring city of Lysychansk, pensioner Oleksandr Lyakhovets said he had just enough time to save his cat before the flames engulfed his flat after it was hit by a Russian missile.
“They shoot here endlessly… It’s a horror show,” the 67-year-old told AFP.
Lysychansk was among areas visited Sunday by Zelensky, who “got himself acquainted with the operational situation on the front line of defence”, the presidency said.
He also visited Bakhmut, to the southwest in the Donetsk region of the Donbas, and talked with servicemen, his office said.
“I want to thank you for your great work, for your service, for protecting all of us, our state. I am grateful to everyone,” he told them.
“I am proud of everyone whom I met, whom I shook hands with, with whom I communicated, whom I supported,” Zelensky said in his daily evening address after his visit.
“Each family has its own story. Most were without men,” he said.
“Someone’s husband went to war, someone’s is in captivity, someone’s, unfortunately, died. A tragedy. No home, no loved one. But we must live for the children. True heroes — they are among us.”
Sunday also brought the first Russian missile strikes on Kyiv since April 28.
“High-precision, long-range missiles fired by the Russian Aerospace Forces on the outskirts of Kyiv destroyed T-72 tanks supplied by eastern European countries and other armoured vehicles that were in hangars,” a Russian defence ministry spokesman said.
One person was wounded, and AFP reporters saw several buildings with blown-out windows near one of the sites that were targeted.
– UK pledges missiles –
Ukraine has asked supporting countries for ever more powerful arms to fend off the Russian attack, and its deputy defence minister stressed Sunday this support was needed until Moscow was defeated.
The United States last week said it would supply Ukraine with advanced missile systems, the latest in a long list of weaponry sent or pledged to the pro-Western country.
But Putin said long-range missile supplies to Ukraine meant “we will draw the appropriate conclusions and use our arms… to strike targets we haven’t hit before”.
Unveiling the latest UK contribution, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace insisted Ukraine’s Western allies must maintain their weapons deliveries to enable it to win.
The UK Ministry of Defence said London had coordinated closely with Washington over its gift of the multiple-launch rocket systems, known as MLRS.
The M270 launchers, which can strike targets up to 80 kilometres (50 miles) away with precision-guided rockets, will “offer a significant boost in capability for the Ukrainian forces”, the ministry added.
Western powers have imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Russia but divisions have emerged on how to act, particularly on whether to engage in dialogue with Russia.
Speaking from the apostolic palace in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis on Sunday renewed calls for “real negotiations” to end what he called the “increasingly dangerous escalation” of the war.
Russian troops now occupy a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, according to Kyiv, and Moscow has imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports, sparking fears of a global food crisis.
Ukraine and Russia are among the top wheat exporters in the world.
The United Nations said it was leading intense negotiations with Russia to allow Ukraine’s grain harvest to leave the country.