Russian troops arrived near the strategic city of Severodonetsk on Friday in a relentless offensive to control the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, as the fighting sparked a historic rift in the Moscow branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Pro-Russian separatists say they have captured the town of Lyman, between Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, a road leading to key cities still under Kiev’s control.
Russian forces were also stationed in the separatist provinces of Lugansk, Severodonetsk and Lysichansk, on the main route to the former administrative center of Ukraine in Kramatorsk.
As a result of the war, the Moscow-backed branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church severed ties with Russia in a historic move against Russia’s spiritual authority.
A church council focused on Russia’s “aggression” has condemned the belligerent stance of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and declared “full independence”. Ukraine has been under Moscow’s spiritual leadership since at least the 17th century.
Church spokesman Archbishop Clement told AFP: “Not only has he (Kirill) failed to condemn Russia’s military aggression, but he has also failed to find a voice for the suffering people of Ukraine.”
This is the second Orthodox split in Ukraine in recent years, with part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church seceding from Moscow in 2019 to annex Russian Crimea and support separatists in Donbass.
– Severodonetsk ‘surrounded’ –
Three months after Russia launched its aggression on February 24, killing thousands on both sides and driving 6.6 million Ukrainians out of the country, Moscow is concentrating on eastern Ukraine after failing in its initial ambition to occupy Kyiv.
Observers believe that Russia’s profits have fallen far short of President Vladimir Putin’s expectations, although Moscow has gained control of several southern Ukrainian cities, such as Kherson and Mariupol.
The British Defense Ministry said in its latest briefing that “Russia is putting pressure on the pockets of Severodonetsk, although Ukraine retains control of multiple defense sectors, denying Russia full control of the Donbass.”
Severodonetsk is “now under siege” and Ukrainian troops will no longer be able to leave the city, a Lugansk police official was quoted as saying by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.
Alexander Struk, a senior city official, denied this, although he acknowledged that the situation was “very difficult” due to the incessant bombings.
Lugansk’s regional governor, Sergei Gade, said in a telegram video that at least five civilians had been killed in the region in the past 24 hours.
“People are willing to risk everything to get food and water,” said Alexander Kozir, head of Lisichansk’s main aid distribution center.
“They are psychologically so depressed that they are no longer afraid. All they care about is looking for food,” he said.
At least 10 people have been killed in a Russian attack on a military base in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, far from the frontline, the regional head of the National Guard has said.
– Discussion ban –
The Kremlin is now seeking to tighten its grip on parts of occupied Ukraine, including quick-tracking citizenship of residents of Russian-controlled areas.
Russian authorities in Mariupol, which was seized after a devastating siege this month that killed thousands and left the city in ruins, have canceled school holidays to prepare students to switch to a Russian curriculum, according to Kiev.
There is speculation that Russia may try to annex the territories of eastern and southern Ukraine that it now controls, possibly in a referendum during Russia’s regional elections in September.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak to EU leaders at an emergency summit on Monday as they try to agree on an oil embargo against Russia, which is being held by Hungary, which has close ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orban Putin.
“Instead of continuing to trade (with Russia), we have to work until they stop their policy of aggression,” Zelensky said in a virtual speech to an Indonesian think tank hosting this year’s G20 summit.
– ‘Fear of Extension’ –
Tensions have also risen between Kyiv and some Western countries, particularly Germany, over the apparent reluctance to supply more weapons to Ukraine.
Ukraine has also jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting that Putin should offer an “off-ramp” offer to save face in a compromise deal that would see Kiev accept some territory.
“Some partners avoid giving the necessary weapons for fear of expansion. Increase, really?” Mikhailo Podoliak, Zelensky’s adviser, wrote on Twitter that it was time to “respond” to Kiev with multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he fears Putin is “chewing on the ground in Donbass” and that more military support for Kiev is “vital”.
– Food Supply Concerns –
Conflict also raises concerns about global food shortages, adding to the problems for the world’s poor as energy prices rise.
Russia and Ukraine alone produce 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply, and grain ships cannot leave Ukrainian ports.
But Putin rejected claims in a telephone conversation with Austrian Chancellor Carl Nehamar on Friday that Russia was blocking Ukraine’s grain exports as “baseless,” according to the Kremlin.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)