By JOHN LEICESTER and DAVID KEYTON
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian military extended its grip on eastern Ukrainian territory on Thursday, capturing two villages and vying for control of a key highway as it seeks to cut lines supplies and encircle some frontline Ukrainian forces, British and Ukrainian military officials said.
Ukrainian forces withdrew from some areas near the town of Lysychansk to avoid being surrounded as the Russians sent reinforcements and concentrated firepower in the area, the British Ministry of Defense said. The city is located in Luhansk province, a major battleground in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces had taken over the villages of Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka and were trying to capture Syrotyne, a settlement outside the province’s urban administrative center, Sievierodonetsk.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press that the Russians were “burning everything” in their offensive to surround the Ukrainian fighters.
“The Russians are advancing without trying to spare ammunition or troops, and they lack neither,” Haidai said. “They have an advantage in heavy artillery and troop numbers.”
“Part of the Luhansk region still remains under Ukrainian control, defying the Russians and provoking their fury and desire to burn it down,” he added.
For weeks, Russian forces pounded Sievierodonetsk with artillery and air raids, and fought the Ukrainian army house to house. Ukrainian forces remain entrenched with around 500 civilians at the Azot chemical plant, the only part of town still under Ukrainian control.
Haidai said Ukrainian soldiers repelled the takeover of the city by the factory’s sprawling underground structures, but he noted that “the shelling has intensified, and even the concrete shelters cannot withstand the bombardment.” The Russians were using their full arsenal – heavy artillery, tanks, planes,” he said.
Haidai said Lysychansk, which is located on a steep bank facing Sievierodonetsk. also faced a relentless Russian artillery barrage. At least one civilian died and three others were injured in 24 hours as the Russians focused more than 100 multiple rocket launchers to “crush entire blocks”, the governor said.
“The Russian military is ‘liberating’ Sievierodonetsk from living and working places,” he said in a sarcastic reference to Russia’s stated goal of “liberating” the entire Donbass region in the east from Ukraine.
The UK Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence assessment on Thursday that Russian forces had likely advanced more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) towards the southern approaches to Lysychansk since Sunday.
“Some Ukrainian units withdrew, probably to avoid being surrounded,” the statement said. “Russia’s improved performance in this sector is likely the result of recent unit build-ups and heavy fire concentration.”
The Ukrainian military said the Russians were also moving to overtake the hills overlooking a highway linking Lysychansk to Bakhmut in the southwest in a bid to cut off supply lines for Ukrainian forces.
Haidai said the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway was not in use due to heavy Russian shelling and Ukrainian forces were getting supplies via an alternate route.
After a failed attempt to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, at the start of the Feb. 24 invasion, Russian forces focused on the Donbass region, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Russian military currently controls about 95% of Luhansk province and about half of neighboring Donetsk province, the two regions that make up Donbass.
Asked about the prospects for a political settlement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday: “It’s possible once Ukraine meets all Russian demands.” He added: “Ukraine knows full well what they are.”
The Kremlin has previously demanded that Ukraine accept Russia’s sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and recognize the independence of the breakaway territories of Donbass.
Moscow also said Ukraine should recognize the situation on the ground, an apparent reference to the land gains Russia has made in southern Ukraine, where Russian forces have seized the Kherson region, d part of the Zaporizhzhia region and the port city of Mariupol in Donetsk. .
Kyiv has urged its Western allies to provide more heavy weapons to counter Russia’s firepower advantage. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Thursday announced the arrival of US-supplied multiple launch rocket systems and enthusiastically thanked his US counterpart “for these powerful tools!”
“The summer will be hot for the Russian occupiers. And the last for some of them,” Reznikov tweeted.
Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, said HIMAR rocket launchers would help Ukraine’s military resist the Russian onslaught and could launch a counteroffensive in the south.
He noted that HIMARS has longer range, accuracy and rate of fire compared to similar Soviet-designed systems that Russia and Ukraine used during the four-month war.
“Russia’s main forces are now concentrated in Donbass and it cannot redeploy them as long as the fierce fighting continues,” Sunhurovsky said.
A Ukrainian politician and TV personality says an online fundraising pitch to help Ukraine buy three offensive drones raised $10.4 million in 24 hours.
Serhiy Prytula credited the ‘incredible’ support of Ukrainians after his charitable foundation appealed for $15 million a day earlier for the purchase of Bayraktar drones like those Ukrainian forces have previously used to defend against the Russian invaders.
He tweeted: “$4.6 million takeaway. The People’s Bayraktar project is already a nationwide crowdfunding. Let’s make it international!
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels seemed on track to make Ukraine a candidate for membership in the 27-nation bloc. However, the country’s actual admission to the EU is likely to take years, both because of the war and the reforms the Ukrainian government is expected to undertake to conform to European standards.
Accession talks are unlikely to start before next year, and EU membership would not provide any security guarantees like NATO membership would. Ukraine has also sought to join the Western military alliance, which Putin cited as justification for invading the neighboring country.
Several EU diplomats, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity ahead of an EU leaders summit starting on Thursday, said Ukraine would receive the unanimous approval required to become a candidate and launch negotiations on future membership.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Thursday her country was offering its expertise to help protect Ukrainian ports and the safe passage of ships exporting Ukrainian grain.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. Russia’s invasion and blockade of Ukrainian ports has halted much of this flow and left millions of tonnes of grain stuck in silos, endangering the food supply of many developing countries, particularly in Africa. .
“There is an urgent need for action over the next month ahead of the new harvest, and we are determined to work with our allies to achieve this,” Truss told a press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu. , during a visit to Ankara. to discuss ways to end the blockade.
Turkey wants to bring together the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine to organize a UN plan that would allow the safe shipment of agricultural products from Ukrainian ports. Cavusoglu said a possible agreement could establish a “safe zone” just outside Ukrainian territorial waters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday that Russia had destroyed more than 2,000 schools and other educational institutions during the war.
In a video address to students and professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Zelenskyy said that in areas where Russian troops made rapid advances, “the forces were shooting people in the streets, they were torturing people, they raped minors – boys and girls”.
Zelenskyy also expressed disappointment that Israel had not joined Western-led sanctions against Russia or provided Ukraine with military aid to boost its forces in the war.
Israel relies on good relations with Russia for security coordination in Syria, where Russia has troops and where Israel carries out frequent strikes against enemy targets. He sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Lviv. Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine