Russian and Ukrainian forces were fighting street by street for control of the industrial city of Severodonetsk on Monday in the pivotal battle of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces had the numerical advantage and the situation was “difficult”, but Ukraine had “every chance” to fight back.
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The eastern city has become the main target of the Russian offensive in the Donbas – made up of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces – as the Kremlin’s invasion grinds on in a war of attrition that has seen cities laid waste by artillery bombardments.
“The situation is difficult in the east,” Zelenskyy told a media briefing in the capital Kyiv. “We are in control of the situation, there are more [Russians], they are more powerful, but we have every chance to fight.
“If there is a [Russian] breakthrough in Donbas, it will be very difficult,” he added.
Russia says it is on a mission to “liberate” the Donbas – which has been partly held by separatist proxies of Moscow since 2014 – after Ukrainian forces pushed its troops back from the capital Kyiv and Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, in the war’s early stages.
Zelenskyy said peace talks with Russia stood at “level zero”, and that “the most threatening situation” has developed in the Zaporizhia region, parts of which have already been taken by Russia.
“The enemy wants to … occupy the city of Zaporizhzhia,” he added.
Russia calls its action in Ukraine a “special military operation” mounted to stamp out what it sees as threats to its own security. Ukraine and its Western allies dismiss this and say the Russian offensive is an unprovoked war to grab territory that risks turning into a wider European conflict.
UK pledges missiles
Earlier on Monday, the United Kingdom said it would supply Ukraine with multiple-launch rocket systems that can strike targets up to 80km (50 miles) away.
The systems would give the Ukrainians the more precise, long-range firepower needed to reach Russian artillery batteries, a key component of Moscow’s battle plans.
The UK move was coordinated with the United States, which last week pledged to supply Kyiv with advanced rocket systems.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would respond to Western deliveries of long-range weapons to Ukraine by pushing Ukrainian forces further back from Russia’s border.
Speaking during an online news conference, Lavrov said that “the longer the range of weapons you supply, the farther away the line from where neo-Nazis could threaten the Russian Federation will be pushed”.
Separately, Lavrov blasted the West for preventing his trip to Serbia by blocking his flight.
“An unthinkable thing has happened … A sovereign state has been deprived of its right to conduct foreign policies. The international activities of Serbia on the Russian track have been blocked.”
The announcement followed reports that Serbia’s neighbours – Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro – had refused to allow Lavrov’s plane to fly through their airspace to reach Serbia.
Securing grain exports
Zelenskyy on Monday said Ukraine is in talks with countries including Turkey and the UK about security guarantees for Ukrainian ships carrying much-needed grain for export.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted food supplies for many nations in the world and caused prices to soar.
“It is important for us that there is a security corridor … that the fleet of this or that country ensures the shipping of the grain,” Zelenskyy said. “If now we have 22-25 million tonnes blocked there, in the fall we might have 75 [million tonnes].”
The issue of blocked grain will be on the agenda Wednesday during Lavrov’s visit to Turkey. Ankara is involved in efforts by the United Nations to reach an agreement for shipping Ukrainian grain out amid an escalating global food crisis.
Zelenskyy said Kyiv has not been invited to the talks, possibly because Turkey wants to get security guarantees for its ships from Russia first.