Russian soldiers moved closer to capturing Severodonetsk, a crucial city in eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday, but Kyiv’s prospects of repelling the invaders were strengthened by a US commitment of more modern rocket launchers to aid their defence.
“The Russians hold 70% of Severodonetsk,” said Sergiy Gaiday, the governor of the Lugansk area, on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian soldiers were retreating to planned positions.
“If the Russians take control of Severodonetsk in two or three days, they will install artillery and mortars and intensify the bombardment on Lysychansk,” he warned, referring to the Ukrainian-held city across the river.
Since the failed attempt to conquer Kyiv, Severodonetsk has become a target of overwhelming Russian artillery, with Lysychansk the remaining pocket of resistance in the eastern Lugansk region.
Ukraine’s defence ministry spokesman, Oleksander Motuzianyk, said there was “fighting in the streets” in Severodonetsk and that the Russians had reached the city centre.
“They are being actively resisted by the Ukrainian armed forces,” he claimed.
President Joe Biden said that more US weaponry was on the way to help the outgunned Ukrainian military “more precisely strike vital targets” in Ukraine.
The Himars multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS, is a mobile device that can launch multiple precision-guided missiles at the same time.
According to a US official, they are the centrepiece of a $700 million package that also includes air-surveillance radar, extra Javelin short-range anti-tank rockets, artillery ammo, helicopters, vehicles, and spare parts.
They will allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind Russian lines, with a range of around 50 miles (80 kilometres).
‘Fuel to the fire’
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, accused the US of “throwing fuel to the fire,” claiming that “such supplies” did not inspire Kyiv to resume peace negotiations.
“We do not wish a war between NATO and Russia,” Biden wrote in the New York Times, indicating that the US would not support assaults within Russia.
Later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated Ukraine had committed not to employ the new missiles within Russia, predicting a long confrontation.
“As best we can tell right now,” he told a news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “we are still looking at many months of conflict.”
While some observers believe the Himars could be a “game-changer,” others warn that they should not be expected to alter the tide overnight, owing to the fact that Ukrainian troops will need time to learn how to use them properly.
However, after 98 days of conflict, they may boost morale.
“Everyone’s morale rise when they realise they have a heavy weapon behind them,” one Ukrainian frontline warrior told AFP before the announcement.
Western officials stated in an intelligence briefing that Russia is making “gradual but steady gains,” but that there will be “a lot more challenges to come” even after Severodonetsk is taken.
“After the closure of the (Ukraine-controlled) enclave, several river crossings must be completed, and we’ve seen how difficult those river crossings can be.”
Three persons were killed and six others were injured in a rocket strike west of Severodonetsk in the city of Sloviansk, according to AFP journalists.
In Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, at least one person died and two others were injured on Wednesday, according to AFP.
In addition to sending arms and cash to Ukraine, the European Union has imposed unprecedented economic penalties on Russia.
Germany announced on Wednesday that it would supply an air defence system capable of protecting a large city from Russian air strikes, albeit deployment will take months.
This week, EU leaders agreed to a ban on most Russian oil imports, but downplayed the possibility of shutting down Russian gas, which many member states rely on heavily.
Moscow said it was working on a “reorientation” to locate alternative oil destinations in order to “minimise the negative impacts.”
Russia has failed to pay $1.9 million in accumulated interest on a national bond, according to a panel of investors on Wednesday.
In addition, Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed that between January and May, its gas exports to nations outside the former Soviet Union fell by more than a quarter year on year, owing to the loss of numerous European consumers.
Russia has attempted to circumvent sanctions by requiring payment in rubles for gas and cutting off countries who refuse.
After the Netherlands, Finland, Poland, and Bulgaria, Denmark was slated to be the next target on Wednesday.
In the meantime, Danes voted on whether to reverse the country’s opt-out from the EU’s common defence policy, just weeks after Finland and Sweden asked to join NATO in response to Russian aggression.
Grain as weapon
The Russian invasion on February 24 not only murdered thousands of people and forced millions of Ukrainians to abandon their homes, but it also put the world on the verge of a worldwide food crisis.
According to the Ukrainian Grain Association (UGA), Ukraine, one of the world’s major producers, would likely export half as much grain as it did the previous season.
Pope Francis spoke out against the use of grain as a “weapon of war” at the Vatican.
In recent days, the leaders of France, Germany, and Italy have all urged Putin to ease Russia’s blockade of the Odessa port.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the problem must be resolved by the West and Kyiv, beginning with the easing of sanctions.
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Ukrainian football supporters were gearing up to witness their national team play its first official match since Russia’s invasion, a World Cup qualifier against Scotland in Glasgow later Wednesday.
“I’m rooting for victory,” Andriy Veres, a 44-year-old army serviceman, told AFP.
“It is incredibly essential for the country, for all people, for all fans and even for those who are not supporters these days.”