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Russia is taking over small towns, aiming to expand the battle for eastern Ukraine

Kyiv “While Russia has made progress in capturing the entire disputed eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin on Saturday tried to shake Europe’s determination to punish his country with sanctions and continue to supply weapons that support Ukraine’s defense.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry says Lyman, the second small town to fall this week, has been “completely liberated” by joint Russian troops and Kremlin-backed separatists who have been at war for eight years in the Donbass industrial region. bordering Russia.

Ukraine’s train system transported weapons and evacuated citizens through the Lyman, a key railway center to the east. Control of it will also give the Russian military another foothold in the region; there are bridges for troops and equipment for crossing the Seversky Donets River, which has so far prevented Russia’s advance into the Donbass.

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Ukrainian authorities have sent mixed signals to Lyman. On Friday, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kirilenko said Russian troops controlled most of it and were trying to push their offensive against Bakhmut, another city in the region. On Saturday, Deputy Defense Minister Hana Malyar challenged Moscow’s claim that Lyman had fallen, saying fighting was still going on there.

In a video address Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation in the east as “very complicated” and said that “the Russian army is trying to squeeze at least some result”, focusing its efforts there.

The Kremlin said Putin had an 80-minute telephone conversation Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany, warning of ongoing transfers of Western weapons to Ukraine and blaming Western sanctions for ending the conflict in global food supplies.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have called for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, according to the chancellor’s spokesman, and called on Putin to engage in serious, direct talks with Zelensky to end the fighting.

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Reporting the call to the Kremlin says Putin has confirmed “Russia’s openness to resume dialogue.” The three leaders, who spent weeks without speaking in the spring, agreed to stay in touch, it added.

But Russia’s recent progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up Donbass, could further encourage Putin. After failing to occupy Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia has set out to seize the last parts of the region that are not controlled by the separatists.

“If Russia succeeds in capturing these areas, it is very likely that the Kremlin will see this as a significant political achievement and present it to the Russian people as justifying the invasion,” the British Defense Ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

Russia has stepped up efforts to seize the cities of Severodonetsk and nearby Lisichansk, the last major Ukrainian-controlled areas in Luhansk.

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Luhansk Governor Sergei Haidai said Ukrainian fighters had repulsed the attack on Severodonetsk, but Russian troops were still pushing to surround them. He later said Russian forces had seized a hotel on the outskirts of the city, damaged 14 high-rise buildings and fought in the streets with Ukrainian forces.

Severodonetsk Mayor Alexander Struck said there was a fight at the city’s bus station. A humanitarian center could not operate because of the danger, Struck said, and his cell phone and electricity were cut off. And residents risk being exposed to shelling to get water from half a dozen wells, he said.

Some supply routes are operational and evacuation of the wounded is still possible, Struck said. He estimated that 1,500 civilians in the city, which had a pre-war population of about 100,000, had died in the fighting, as well as a lack of drugs and diseases that could not be cured.

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Just south of Severodonetsk, Associated Press reporters saw elderly and sick civilians tied up in soft stretchers and slowly carried down the stairs of an apartment building in Bakhmut on Friday.

Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to persuade the reluctant residents to leave, but said she and her husband would not be evacuated until their son, who was in Severodonetsk, returned home.

“I need to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m staying here, “said Lvova, 66.

On Saturday, people who managed to escape from Lisichansk described intensified shelling, especially in the past week, which has left them unable to leave basement bomb shelters.

Yana Skakova left the city on Friday with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons and cried as she boarded a train traveling to western Ukraine. Her husband stayed to take care of their house and animals.

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“It’s too dangerous to stay there now,” she said, wiping away tears.

Russia’s progress has raised fears that residents may experience the same horrors seen in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which endured a three-month siege before falling last week. Residents who have not yet fled are faced with the choice of trying to do so now or staying. Mariupol has become a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as Ukraine’s determination to defend the country.

The port of Mariupol has reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces completed mine clearance in the Sea of ​​Azov. Russia’s Tass news agency reported that a ship traveling to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia entered the port early Saturday.

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In talks with Macron and Scholz, the Kremlin said, Putin stressed that Russia was working to “establish a peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated cities in Donbas.”

Germany and France signed a 2015 peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia that would give a great deal of autonomy to Moscow-backed rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. However, the agreement stalled long before Russia’s invasion in February. Any hope that Paris and Berlin will anchor a renewed peace deal now seems unlikely, as both Kyiv and Moscow take uncompromising positions.

Ukrainian authorities say Kremlin-installed officials in the occupied cities have begun broadcasting Russian news programs, introduced Russian phone codes, introduced a Russian school curriculum and taken other steps to annex the areas.

Russian-backed areas in the southern Kherson region have shifted to Moscow time and “will no longer switch to summer time, as is customary in Ukraine,” Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Kryl Stremousov, a Russian-based local official, as saying. saying saturday.

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In a statement Saturday, Zelensky also accused Russian forces of not allowing Kherson residents to leave, saying they were in fact “trying to take people hostage” as a “sign of weakness”.

The war caused a global food shortage because Ukraine is a major exporter of grain and other goods. Moscow and Kyiv have exchanged accusations about which country is responsible for maintaining the shipments, with Russia saying Ukrainian naval mines have obstructed safe passage and Ukraine is citing a Russian naval blockade.

The press service of the Ukrainian Navy said that two Russian ships “capable of carrying up to 16 missiles” are ready for action in the Black Sea, adding that only maritime routes established through multilateral agreements can be considered safe.

Ukrainian authorities have pressured Western countries for more sophisticated and powerful weapons. The US Department of Defense will not confirm a report on CNN on Friday, according to which the Biden administration is preparing to send long-range missile systems.

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Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said on Saturday that such a move would be “unacceptable” and called on the White House to “renounce statements about Ukraine’s military victory.”

Moscow is also trying to shake Sweden’s and Finland’s determination to join NATO. Russia’s Defense Ministry says its fleet has successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea, which has hit its target at about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers).

If confirmed, the launch could create problems for NATO travel in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads, and is said to be impossible to stop with current defense systems.

Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would form new military units in the western part of the country in response to Sweden’s and Finland’s proposals to join NATO.

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Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkov, Ukraine, Andrew Katel in New York and AP journalists around the world contributed.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Russia is taking over small towns, aiming to expand the battle for eastern Ukraine

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