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Russia Extends Control Over Key Ukraine City as U.S. Plans to Boost Kyiv's Firepower

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/31/2022 Thomas Grove
© aris messinis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Russian forces took parts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk on Tuesday following street fighting with Ukrainian defenders, boosting Moscow’s control over one of Kyiv’s most important strongholds in the Donbas area, the recent focus of its Ukraine offensive.

Russia has intensified its push to take the strategically important city as Western leaders have taken new measures to punish Moscow for its invasion. The Biden administration plans to provide Ukraine with precision-guided rocket systems to boost Ukraine’s firepower against Russian troops.

It is unclear how many of the new systems, which U.S. officials say can hit targets from a distance of 40 miles or more, the U.S. would provide, but one official said they could arrive in Ukraine within weeks. Training on how to use them would begin quickly and would take at least 10 days.

Analysts say that while Ukrainians have learned to use the individual weapons systems, they will be much more effective when they are able to use them in concert. Western governments have hoped that the steady flow of weapons to the Kyiv government could change the calculus of the battle in eastern Ukraine, where Russia wants to capture Donbas, once Ukraine’s industrial heartland, which borders Russia.

“The Russian army is trying to gather overwhelming forces in certain areas to put more and more pressure on our defenders,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an address late Monday. “There, in the Donbas, the Russian army has gathered the maximum combat power.”

The Russian-backed leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, told the Russian state-run TASS news agency early Tuesday that a third of Severodonetsk is controlled by separatist forces. Video from Chechen fighters allied with Russia in the city showed soldiers moving unimpeded in the city center. The Luhansk region and neighboring Donetsk make up the Donbas area.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai on Tuesday evening said on Telegram that most of Severodonetsk was under Russian control. He also said Russians had struck a tank containing nitric acid at a nearby chemical plant, and posted pictures online of a dark orange cloud rising into the sky above the city. He warned residents to shelter in place and gave instructions on how to improvise a homemade gas mask against the fumes.

The fall of Severodonetsk would put the Russians closer to their goal of controlling Donbas and give them a firmer grip on roads leading to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, seen as the Ukrainian army’s most important redoubts in the area. Russia’s assault on Severodonetsk has come at a high price for its armed forces, which are suffering from a lack of manpower following Russia’s failed attempt to take Kyiv.


Video: Russia takes full control of first major Ukrainian city (TODAY)

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Should Ukraine cede Severodonetsk to the Russians, Kyiv’s troops would likely fall back to the neighboring city of Lysychansk, which overlooks Severodonetsk from across the Siverskyi Donets river.

Also on Tuesday, two Russian soldiers were found guilty of firing rockets indiscriminately toward civilian areas, in Ukraine’s second war-crimes trial since the war began in February. The soldiers were each sentenced to 11 years and six months in prison, six months short of the maximum sentence in Ukraine for violating the laws of war.

The attacks at the center of the case occurred on the first day of the war, early on the morning of Feb. 24, prosecutors said. The soldiers’ regiment had been deployed to Belgorod, Russia, just across the border from Kharkiv, from which soldiers in their vehicle and other vehicles fired dozens of rockets into Ukraine, according to testimony. The missiles hit an electrical station, apartment buildings and a veterinary school.

The soldiers then crossed into Ukraine and continued to fire, this time at Kharkiv, prosecutors said. Their column came under attack, and the two soldiers, a driver and a gunner, later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.

Russia also moved to deepen its control over some occupied territories. The Russian-appointed deputy head of the military-civil administration of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, told TASS that the area plans to become an official Russian region in “the near future.”

Mr. Stremousov, in remarks carried by the Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency, added that all stores in Kherson are now accepting the Russian ruble, while TASS reported Ukrainian mobile communications had been cut after a push for residents to switch over to Russian SIM cards.

The European Union said Monday that it would introduce a sixth sanctions package that would include an embargo on Russian oil over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The embargo would include an exemption for oil delivered from Russia via pipelines, an amount that makes up one-third of EU oil purchases from Russia. EU officials said that by the end of this year, the embargo would cover 90% of previous Russian oil imports. It would be phased in over several months.

Russia cut off natural-gas deliveries to partially state-owned Dutch energy firm GasTerra after it refused to pay in rubles as demanded by Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

The company, which is 50%-owned by the Dutch government, joins Poland, Bulgaria and Finland, who had their gas supplies suspended by Russia over the payment mechanism. Some of Europe’s biggest natural-gas utilities, however, have agreed to new payment terms with Russia’s Gazprom PJSC.

African Union Chairman Macky Sall, meanwhile, told EU leaders on Tuesday that financial sanctions on Russia have collateral effects on needy countries. Mr. Sall, who is president of Senegal, said in an address to the EU summit that paying for Russian food exports has become harder since the U.S., EU and their allies removed most big Russian banks from the Swift payment system. Russia has also blockaded Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea, from which large volumes of grain are normally exported.

Rather than mention Russia’s role in the blockade of the port of Odessa, he said the 55-member union supports “the proposed U.N. mechanism to help unblock the situation.” United Nations officials are trying to broker a deal to get grain out of Ukrainian ports to countries dependent on food exports from Ukraine.

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

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