Ukraine braces for Russian ‘storm’ in the east in run-up to EU meeting

  • Luhansk governor says situation is ‘extremely difficult’
  • Kremlin says captured Americans are mercenaries
  • The European Union will decide on Ukraine’s candidacy for membership this week
  • Russia threatens retaliation against Lithuania

Kyiv, June 21 (Reuters) – Ukraine on Tuesday acknowledged difficulties in fighting in the east as Russian forces regrouped after mounting pressure and made gains in two cities ahead of an EU summit this week that is expected to to welcome Kyiv’s offer to join the bloc.

The governor of the Luhansk region, the scene of the heaviest Russian attacks in recent weeks, said Russian forces launched a massive attack and gained some territory on Monday, though the night was relatively quiet.

“It’s a calm before the storm,” Governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had predicted Russia would step up attacks ahead of the EU summit on Thursday and Friday. He was defiant in an address to the nation on Monday night, although he referred to the “difficult” fighting in Luhansk for Sievierodonetsk and his sister city, Lysychansk.

“We are defending Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk, this whole area, the most difficult. We have the most difficult fighting there,” he said. “But we have our strong boys and girls there.”

Gaidai said Russian forces controlled most of Sievierodonetsk, as well as the Azot chemical plant, where more than 500 civilians, including 38 children, have been sheltering for weeks. The highway connecting Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk with the city of Bakhmut was under constant artillery fire, he said.

Rodion Miroshnik, ambassador to Russia for the self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic, said his forces “were moving from the south towards Lysychansk” with gun battles in several cities.

“The next few hours should bring considerable changes in the balance of forces in the area,” he said on Telegram.

WEAR PHASE

Russia sent tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine on February 24 in what it called a “special operation” to degrade its military capabilities and root out what it calls dangerous nationalists.

It has also introduced a law that makes it a crime to spread “knowingly false” information or reports that could bring the Russian military into disrepute.

Dmitry Muratov, co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize and publisher of an independent Russian newspaper, auctioned his Nobel medal for a record $103.5 million to help children displaced by war. His newspaper, fiercely critical of President Vladimir Putin, suspended operations in Russia in March after warnings about its coverage of the war. read more

The war has entered a phase of brutal attrition in recent weeks, with Russian forces massing in parts of the Donbas controlled by Ukraine, which Russia claims on behalf of the separatists.

In Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port on the Black Sea, which is blockaded by the Russian navy, a Russian missile destroyed a food warehouse on Monday, Ukraine’s military said.

The United States and its European allies have provided arms and financial assistance to Ukraine but have avoided direct involvement in the conflict.

British military intelligence said Ukrainian forces claimed their first successful use of Western-donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles, destroying a tugboat carrying weapons and personnel to a Russian island in the Black Sea. read more

“Ukraine’s coastal defense capability has largely neutralized Russia’s ability to establish control of the sea and project a maritime force in the northwestern Black Sea,” he said.

AMERICANS CAPTURED

Some foreign citizens have volunteered to fight for Ukraine.

On Monday, the Kremlin said two Americans detained in Ukraine were mercenaries not covered by the Geneva convention who should face responsibility for their actions. read more

The comments by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov were the first formal acknowledgment that the two, identified in US reports as Andy Huynh, 27, and Alexander Drueke, 39, were in detention.

A US State Department spokesman said it had been in contact with Russian authorities regarding any US citizens who may have been captured and called on Russia and its representatives to “fulfill their international obligations” in dealing. that they give to any captive.

This month, a separatist court sentenced two Britons and a Moroccan to death after they were caught fighting for Ukraine.

Peskov also said American basketball star Brittney Griner, detained in Russia for more than two months, was being prosecuted for drug offenses and was not a hostage. read more

At least two Americans have died in the war. read more

International concern has focused on trying to restore Ukraine’s food exports, now shut down by a de facto Russian blockade. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading sources of edible grains and oils, raising fears of global shortages.

Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions.

The war has also disrupted energy markets, including Russian shipments of oil and gas to Europe, which remains the main source of energy on the continent and Russia’s main source of income. Russia says EU sanctions prevented it from restoring pipeline equipment.

Russia has threatened to retaliate against EU member Lithuania for banning the transport of coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology to Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea surrounded by EU territory.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has summoned Lithuania’s top diplomat and demanded that he reverse the “openly hostile” move or Russia “reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests.” Lithuania said EU sanctions forced it to enforce the ban.

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Reuters bureau reports; written by David Brunnstrom and Lincoln Feast; edited by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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