Ukraine looked close to losing the key eastern city of Severodonetsk to Russian forces but was boosted Wednesday by the US decision to send more advanced rocket systems to help with its defence.
“The Russians control 70 percent of Severodonetsk,” Lugansk region governor Sergiy Gaiday announced on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing to prepared positions.
One of the industrial hubs on Russia’s path to taking the eastern Lugansk region, Severodonetsk has become a target of massive Russian firepower since the failed attempt to capture Kyiv.
The new weapon is the Himars multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS: a mobile unit that can simultaneously launch multiple precision-guided missiles.
With a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometers), they will allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind Russian lines.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of “adding fuel to the fire”, saying “such supplies” did not encourage Kyiv to summarize peace talks.
He wrote: “We don’t seek a war between NATO and Russia.
While some analysts have suggested the Himars could be a “game-changer”, others caution they should not be expected to suddenly turn the tables, not least because Ukrainian troops need time to learn how to use them effectively.
“If you know you have a heavy weapon behind you, everyone’s spirits rise,” one Ukrainian fighter on the frontline told AFP before the announcement.
On the eastern frontline in Donbas, Ukrainian towns are being subjected to near-constant shelling from Russian forces.
West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, AFP journalists saw buildings destroyed by a rocket attack in which three people died and six others were hurt.
The European Union has also sent weapons and cash for Ukraine, while leveling unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow.
EU leaders agreed this week to ban most Russian oil imports but played down the prospects of shutting off Russian gas on which many member states are hugely dependent.
Separately, Russian energy giant Gazprom said its gas exports to countries outside the former Soviet Union dropped by more than a quarter year-on-year between January and May after losing several European clients.
Denmark was set to become the latest target Wednesday, after the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.
The referendum came just weeks after neighboring Finland and Sweden abandoned decades of military non-alignment by applying to join NATO as a defense against Russian aggression.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said authorities had identified a “few thousand” cases of war crimes in the Donbas, including murder, torture and the forced displacement of children.
A Ukrainian court on Tuesday jailed two Russian soldiers for 11 and a half years for shelling two villages in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
Russia’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbor is also threatening a global food crisis, with Ukraine’s huge grain harvest effectively taken off the world market.
Earlier Pope Francis pleaded against the use of grain as a “weapon of war”, and appealed for “every effort to be made” to “guarantee the universal right to food”.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to the West and Kyiv to resolve the crisis, starting with the lifting of sanctions.
“I am hoping for victory,” 44-year-old army serviceman, Andriy Veres, told AFP.
Originally published as Ukraine braces for Severodonetsk fall, awaits new US weapons