Russia on Tuesday claimed to have taken control of 97 percent of one of the two provinces that make up Ukraine’s Donbas, bringing the Kremlin closer to its goal of completely conquering the eastern industrial heart of coal mines and factories.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow’s troops control almost the entire Luhansk province. And it appears that Russia now occupies about half of Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.
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After Russia gave up its failed attempt to storm Kiev two months ago, Russia declared that its main goal is to take the entire Donbas. Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas since 2014, and the region has been hit hardest by the Russian attack in recent weeks.
Early in the war, Russian forces also took control of the entire Kherson region and much of the Zaporizhzhya region, both in the south. Russian officials and their local officials have discussed plans for those regions to either declare their independence or be incorporated into Russia.
But in what may be the latest case of anti-Russian sabotage in Ukraine, Russian state media said on Tuesday that an explosion at a cafe in the city of Kherson injured four people. Tass called the apparent bombing of the Russian-occupied city an “act of terror.”
Before the February invasion, Ukrainian officials said Russia controlled about seven percent of the country, including the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and areas controlled by separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian troops now control 20 percent of the country.
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While the Kremlin’s armed forces have superior firepower, Ukrainian defenders are entrenched and have shown their ability to counter-attack.
Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, said Moscow’s troops have taken residential areas of Sievierodonetsk and are fighting for control of an industrial area on the outskirts of the city and nearby towns.
Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk have been fighting fiercely in recent weeks. They are among a few towns and villages in the Luhansk region that are still holding out against the Russian invasion, aided by local pro-Kremlin forces.
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Shoigu added that Russian forces pushed their offensive toward the city of Popasna, taking control of Lyman and Sviatohirsk and 15 other cities in the region.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak urged his people not to be dejected by the reversals on the battlefield.
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“Don’t be put off by the news that we have given up something,” he said in a video address. “It is clear that tactical maneuvers are underway. We give something up, we take something back.”
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai admitted that Russian forces control the industrial suburbs of Sievierodonetsk.
“The toughest street fights continue, with varying degrees of success,” Haidai said. “The situation is constantly changing, but the Ukrainians are repelling attacks.”
Moscow’s troops also kept up their artillery fire from Lysychansk. Haidai said Russian troops shelled a market, a school and a university building, destroying the latter. At least three people were injured, he said.
“There is total destruction of the city going on. Russian shelling has intensified significantly in the past 24 hours. Russians are using scorched earth tactics,” Haidai said.
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While insisting on Ukraine’s need to defeat Russia on the battlefield, Zelenskyy said at a Financial Times conference on Tuesday that he is still open to peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He also regretted that Western sanctions “have not really affected Russia’s position,” the FT reported.
Meanwhile, the US military has begun training Ukrainian troops on the advanced multiple rocket launchers that the Biden administration agreed to supply last week. The Pentagon said the training is taking place at a base in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, is mounted on a truck and can carry a container with six rockets, which can travel approximately 70 kilometers. Officials said it would take about three weeks of training before they could go to the front.
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The war also brought deadlock on Tuesday between the head of the UN nuclear watchdog and Ukrainian authorities over the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, plans to visit the Zaporizhzhya factory in southern Ukraine to help maintain security after it was taken by Russian forces in March.
But Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-owned company that oversees the country’s nuclear power plants, said in a blunt statement that Grossi is not welcome. It said its planned tour is “yet another attempt to legitimize the occupying forces’ presence there”.
Amid fears of a global food crisis caused by the war, the Kremlin said Ukraine must remove sea mines near the Port of Odessa on the Black Sea in order to resume essential grain exports from there.
But Ukrainian officials have expressed concern that removing the mines could allow Moscow’s troops to attack.
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