-Ukraine says it is withdrawing from the city of Sievierodonetsk
MOSCOW: Russia on Friday said the decision by European Union leaders to accept Ukraine and Moldova as membership candidates would have negative consequences and amounted to the EU’s “enslaving” neighbouring countries.
Although it could take years for the countries to join the European bloc, the decision to accept them as candidates is a symbol of the EU’s intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, called the move an attempt to encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) made up of ex-Soviet states.
“With the decision to grant Ukraine and Moldova the status of candidate countries, the European Union has confirmed that it continues to actively exploit the CIS on a geopolitical level, to use it to ‘contain’ Russia,” she said in a statement. “They are not thinking of the negative consequences of such a step.”
By expanding to Ukraine and Moldova, two former Soviet republics, Zakharova said, the EU was sacrificing its democratic ideals at the expense of “unrestrained expansion and the political and economic enslavement of its neighbours.”
Moscow has said it needed to send troops into Ukraine, in part, to prevent its territory from being used to attack Russia. Western countries and Kyiv say Russia’s claims are a baseless pretext to justify a land grab.
Meanwhile, after weeks of bloody street-by-street fighting and months of withering Russian bombardment, Ukrainian forces fighting in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk will retreat from the city, the local governor said on Friday. Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Luhansk region’s military administration, said that it “does not make sense” to hold on to what he described as broken positions in the city any longer.
“The number of people killed will increase every day,” he said. “It was decided that our defenders would retreat to new positions, fortified areas, and from there conduct hostilities and inflict damage on the enemy.” The fall of the ruined industrial city on the east bank of the Siversky Donets River meant that Russia could fully concentrate its forces on taking its twin city on the west bank of the river, Lysychansk, the last pocket of land in Luhansk Province under the control of the Ukrainian government.
The Kremlin has devoted a large portion of its combat forces to the capture of the city and the 30-mile-wide pocket of land surrounding it as it seeks to advance westward in the Donbas region — the mineral rich, industrial heartland of Ukraine.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that its troops had captured 10 Ukrainian villages in the Luhansk region over the past five days and claimed to have cornered up to 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers in the area. The ministry’s claims, which have proved overstated or false in the past, could not be independently verified. A spokesman for Ukraine’s defense ministry said the Russian report was categorically false.
Yet with their advance stalled on the outskirts of Lysychansk, the Russians have begun focusing more on the supply routes into the city. Though some damaged roads and bridges remain largely traversable, vehicles will have to slow down to pass craters and debris, leaving more time for Russian artillery to target them.
To take Sievierodonetsk, Russia had to devastate it with artillery strikes. The Ukrainian government has said that about 90 percent of the buildings are destroyed. There are an estimated 8,000 civilians in the city, and Ukrainian officials have said they cannot safely be evacuated to Ukrainian controlled territory.
Just as the siege and destruction of Mariupol became emblematic of the savagery of the war in its early months, the fight for Sievierodonetsk offered a window into the brutal nature of the Russian offensive in the east. Russia has relied on its vast arsenal of artillery, rockets and air power to smash towns and villages into ruins as it grinds its way to capturing territory.
But holding territory is different from smashing it. The street-by-street fighting that raged in Sievierodonetsk for weeks demonstrated the challenges that lie ahead for Russian forces as they try to move on heavily fortified Ukrainian positions farther west.
The fight for the twin cities has been among the bloodiest of the war, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Over the course of the battle, the Ukrainians made desperate pleas to the west to speed up the delivery of heavy weapons as they were vastly outgunned by Russian forces. As the battle intensified, Ukrainian officials said that as many as 200 soldiers a day were dying in the fields and villages of eastern Ukraine.
The Russians have also suffered staggering losses, according to military analysts. But they have continued to pour men, armor and artillery into the fight for this one pocket of land about the size of Detroit.
It could not be determined how many soldiers are pulling out of the Sievierodonetsk, and with all of the bridges across the Siversky Donets River destroyed, it was unclear how they would get out en masse.
Ukrainian soldiers have been shuttling people across the river in small boats. Some soldiers have had to to swim.
The situation across the river in Lysychansk is growing more perilous, and the city is in grave danger of being encircled by Russian forces.