Russia launches all-out assault to encircle Ukraine troops in east

KYIV: Russian forces were conducting an all-out assault on Tuesday (May 24) to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin cities straddling a river in eastern Ukraine, a battle which could determine the success or failure of Moscow’s main campaign in the east.

Exactly three months after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine, authorities in its second-largest city Kharkiv re-opened the underground metro, where thousands of civilians had sheltered for months under relentless bombardment.

The move was evidence of Ukraine’s biggest military success in recent weeks: Pushing Russian forces largely out of artillery range of Kharkiv, as they did from the capital Kyiv in March.

But the decisive battles of the war’s latest phase are still raging further south, where Moscow is attempting to seize the Donbas region of two eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front.

“Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia launched against our country,” Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told a televised briefing.

“The situation on the (eastern) front is extremely difficult because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided (there) right now.”

The easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets river and its twin Lysychansk on the west bank, have become the pivotal battlefield there, with Russian forces advancing from three directions to encircle them.

“The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, where the two cities are among the last territory still held by Ukraine.

“The intensity of fire on Sievierodonetsk has increased by multiple times, they are simply destroying the city,” he said on TV, adding there were about 15,000 people living there.

Further west in Slovyansk, one of the biggest Donbas cities still in Ukrainian hands, air raid sirens wailed on Tuesday but streets were still busy, with a market full, children riding bikes and a street musician playing violin by a supermarket.

Gaidai said Ukrainian forces had driven the Russians out of the village of Toshkivka just south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian-backed separatists said they had taken control of Svitlodarsk, south of Bakhmut. Neither report could be independently confirmed.

‘EVERYONE IS CRAZILY SCARED’

Three months into a war that some Western experts predicted Russia would win within days, Moscow still has only limited gains to show for its worst military losses in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation. Around 6.5 million people have fled abroad, uncounted thousands have been killed and cities have been reduced to rubble.

The war has also had massive international ramifications, including growing food shortages and soaring prices in developing countries that import Ukrainian grain.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday called for talks with Moscow on unlocking wheat exports now trapped in Ukraine because of a Russian blockade in the Black Sea.

Underlining the global geopolitical tensions unleashed by the war, Japan – a key US ally in Asia which has joined Western sanctions against Russia – scrambled jets on Tuesday after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace during a visit to Tokyo by US President Joe Biden.