Russia seizes small city, aims to expand fighting in eastern Ukraine

KRAMATOLSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia claimed Saturday that its troops and separatist militants had seized a key railway hub in eastern Ukraine, the second small town this week to fall into the hands of Moscow’s forces. city ​​as they fight to seize all of the disputed Donbas region of the country.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the city of Lehman had been “completely liberated” by a coalition of Russian soldiers and Kremlin-backed separatists who launched an eight-year campaign in the eastern region bordering Russia. war.

Lehmann had a population of about 20,000 before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and was a regional rail hub. Ukraine’s train system transports weapons and evacuates citizens during the war, and taking control of the city would provide another foothold for Russian troops to advance the larger Ukrainian-controlled city.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with the leaders of France and Germany on Saturday in which he warned against continued Western arms transfers to Ukraine and blamed Western sanctions for the conflict’s disruption to global food supplies, the Kremlin said.

During the 80-minute call, German Chancellor Olaf Schultz and French President Emmanuel Macron urged an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, according to a spokesman for the German chancellor. Both urged Putin to enter into serious direct talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to end the fighting, the spokesman said.

The Kremlin’s readout of the call between Macron, Putin and Scholz said the Russian leader affirmed “the Russian side’s openness to the resumption of dialogue.” According to the readout, the three leaders agreed to stay in touch.

But recent Russian progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up the Donbass, could further encourage Putin. Since failing to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Russia has set out to capture the last parts of the region free from separatist control.

In its assessment on Saturday, the MoD said: “If Russia does succeed in taking over these areas, it is highly likely that the Kremlin will see it as a substantial political achievement and will be described by the Russian people as a justification for the invasion. “

On Tuesday, Russian troops took over Svitlodarsk, a small city with a thermal power station, while intensifying the siege and occupation of the larger city of Sievierodonetsk.

Fighting continued Saturday around West Verodonetsk and nearby Lysichansk, the last major Ukrainian-controlled area in Luhansk province. Zelensky called the situation in the east “difficult” but expressed confidence that his country would prevail with the help of Western weapons and sanctions.

“If the occupiers think that Lehmann or Sivir Donetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. The Donbass will be Ukrainian,” he said.

The governor of Luhansk had warned that Ukrainian soldiers might have to retreat from Sivir Donetsk to avoid being surrounded, but reported Saturday that they had repelled an attack.

“We managed to push the Russians back to where they were before,” Governor Serhii Haidai said. “However, they did not give up their attempt to encircle our army and disrupt logistics in the Luhansk region.”

Speaking on Ukrainian television late Saturday, the governor said the Russians had occupied a hotel on the outskirts of Siver Donetsk. The advance of Russian troops has sparked fears that residents of the southeastern port city of Mariupol will experience the same horrors as people in the weeks leading up to its fall.

Sievierodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Friday that the city’s pre-war population was about 100,000 and about 1,500 civilians died there during the war, including from lack of medicine or from untreatable diseases. The city has about 12,000 to 13,000 residents, Striuk said.

South of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers worked to evacuate people amid threats of air raid sirens and roars. An Associated Press reporter in the northeastern city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province on Friday saw elderly and sick civilians strapped to soft stretchers and slowly carried down the stairs of an apartment building.

Svetlana Livova, the manager of the two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to persuade reluctant residents to leave, but said she and her husband would not be able to evacuate until their son in Sieverodonetsk returned home.

“I have to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m here,” said Lvova, 66.

Last week, a nearly three-month siege of Mariupol ended when Russia claimed the city was complete. The city became a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as a symbol of Ukraine’s determination to defend the country. More than 20,000 civilians are feared dead.

Mariupol’s port has resumed operations after Russian troops reportedly cleared mines near the once-vibrant city in the Sea of ​​Azov. Russia’s state news agency TASS reported that a vessel bound for the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don entered the sea port of Mariupol early Saturday.

The Kremlin said Putin, in an “in-depth exchange of views” with Macron and Scholz, stressed that Russia was working to “establish a peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated cities in the Donbass”.

Ukrainian authorities report that Kremlin officials in the occupied cities have started broadcasting Russian news broadcasts, introducing Russian area codes, introducing Russian school curricula and taking other steps to annex the areas.

The Russian-controlled region of Kherson in southern Ukraine has switched to Moscow time and “will not switch to daylight saving time as is customary in Ukraine,” Russian state news agency Krill Stremousov, a local Russian official, was quoted as saying Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian navy said Saturday morning that Russian ships “continue to impede civilian navigation of Ukraine’s southern coast in the waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov”, “making them a hostile zone”.

The war in Ukraine has caused global food shortages as the country is a major exporter of grain and other commodities. Moscow and Kyiv have been blaming which party was responsible for the seizure of the cargo, with Russia saying Ukrainian mines were blocking safe passage.

The Ukrainian Navy’s press service said two Russian missile carriers “capable of carrying up to 16 missiles” were ready for operations in the Black Sea. It said that only air routes established through multilateral treaties could be considered safe.

Ukrainian officials are pressuring Western countries for more advanced and powerful weapons, especially multiple rocket systems. The Pentagon would not confirm Friday’s CNN report that the Biden administration is preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine.

On Saturday, Russia’s ambassador to the United States called such a move “unacceptable” and called on the Biden administration to “drop its statement on Ukraine’s military victory.”

“The unprecedented flow of arms to Ukraine greatly increases the risk of an escalation of the conflict,” said Anatoly Antonov, Moscow’s top diplomat in Washington, in a Telegram post on the Russian Embassy’s official channel.

The Russian navy has successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea, the Russian Defense Ministry said. The ministry said the recently developed Zircon hypersonic cruise missile hit a target some 1,000 kilometers away.

If confirmed, the launch could spell trouble for NATO’s navigation in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Described as the fastest non-ballistic missile in the world, the Zircon can be equipped with a conventional or nuclear warhead and is said to be unstoppable by current anti-missile defense systems.

Moscow’s claims could not be immediately confirmed, a week after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would form new military units in the western part of the country in response to applications from Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

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Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed.

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