Battle rages for the region of Donbas

Russia pummelled positions in the east of Ukraine on Sunday, its defence ministry said, as it sought to encircle Ukrainian forces in the battle for Donbas and fend off a counteroffensive around the strategic Russian-controlled city of Izium.

At a meeting in Germany, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said Ukraine could win the war, calling for more military support and fast-track approval of expected bids by Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.

Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has jolted European security. Kyiv and its Western allies say the fascism assertion is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.

The president of Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (800 miles) border with Russia, confirmed on Sunday that his country would apply to join NATO, a major policy shift prompted by Russia’s invasion. Sweden’s ruling party followed suit.

Since mid-April, Russian forces have focused much of their firepower on trying to capture two eastern provinces known as the Donbas.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Russia said on Sunday it had struck Ukrainian positions in the east with missiles, targeting command centres and arsenals as its forces seek to surround Ukrainian units between Izium and Donetsk.

Izium straddles the Donets river, about 120 km (75 miles) from Kharkiv on the main highway heading southeast.

“The hottest spot remains the Izium direction,” Ukrainian regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments aired on social media.

Ukraine’s military acknowledged setbacks in an update on Sunday morning: “Despite losses, Russian forces continue to advance in the Lyman, Sievierodonetsk, Avdiivka and Kurakhiv areas in the broader Donbas region.”

In western Ukraine near Poland, missiles destroyed military infrastructure overnight on Saturday and were fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials said.

Nine civilians were wounded in Russian shelling of Sievierodonetsk hospital yesterday evening, Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said on the Telegram messaging application.

Another 10 civilians were wounded in the southern region of Mykolaiv in the last 24 hours, the regional council said, without providing details. The reports could not be independently verified.

There was also no let-up on Sunday in Russia’s bombardment of the steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters are holding out weeks after the city fell into Russian hands, the Ukrainian military said.

Brightly burning munitions were shown cascading down on the steelworks in a video posted by a pro-Russian separatist commander.

A large convoy carrying refugees from the ruins of Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia after nightfall on Saturday after waiting days for Russian troops to allow them to leave.

Finland and Sweden have both said they see NATO membership as a way of bolstering their security, though Russia has warned that it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats came out in favour of the country joining NATO on Sunday, paving the way for an application and abandoning decades of military non-alignment.

NATO’s Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken both expressed confidence that concerns from Turkey about the bids by the Baltic states could be overcome, with Stoltenberg indicating that an accelerated accession process and interim security arrangements would be possible.

Ukraine has deployed many of its new U.S. M-777 howitzers at the front lines and Washington has delivered all but one of the 90 artillery pieces they were due to send, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv said.

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