Russia intensified its attacks on Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, attempting to capture the Donbas region exactly three months after President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine in hopes of quickly overtaking the whole country and toppling its government.
The fighting focused on the Ukrainian-held cities of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river and its twin, Lysychansk, on the west bank, with Russian forces advancing from three directions to encircle them.
Serhiy Gaidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk province, said, “The intensity of fire on Sievierodonetsk has increased by multiple times; they are simply destroying the city,” he said. About 15,000 people live there.
Britain’s defense ministry warned of the importance of the fighting in the region, saying, “Russia’s capture of the Severodonetsk pocket would see the whole of Luhansk Oblast placed under Russian occupation. While currently Russia’s main effort, this operation is only one part of Russia’s campaign to seize the Donbas.”
In his latest nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday, “The coming weeks of the war will be difficult, and we must be aware of that,” singling out fighting in the Donbas region.
But as the war enters its fourth month, with no end in sight, Moscow has failed to overthrow Zelenskyy’s government or capture the capital, Kyiv, and the U.S.-dominated NATO, with Finland and Sweden set to join the military alliance, has united against Putin’s attack on Russia’s neighbor, once a Soviet satellite state but an independent nation since 1991.
Instead, Moscow is focusing its fight on the Donbas and along the southern coast of Ukraine. Russia has captured the port city of Mariupol along the north coast of the Sea of Azov and more than 1,700 Ukrainian troops holed up in the Azovstal steel plant surrendered to Russia, Moscow’s biggest success of the war.
Now, however, some semblance of normal life is also returning to parts of Ukraine. In Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, the underground metro re-opened after thousands of Ukrainians had sheltered there for much of the war. Ukrainian forces have largely pushed Russian troops out of artillery range of Kharkiv.
But with fighting raging in the Donbas, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba Tuesday urged other governments to send more weapons more quickly to aid Ukraine’s fight against Russian forces.
“Too early to conclude that Ukraine already has all the arms it needs,” Kuleba tweeted. “Russian offensive in the Donbas is a ruthless battle, the largest one on European soil since WWII. I urge partners to speed up deliveries of weapons and ammunition,” especially multiple-launch rocket systems and armored personnel carriers.
Kuleba’s call for more military help came a day after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said about 20 countries are sending new security assistance packages to Ukraine.
“Many countries are donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems, tanks and other armored vehicles. Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine’s forces and sustaining its military systems,” Austin told reporters at the Pentagon after concluding the second meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
Denmark said it would provide Ukrainian forces with a Harpoon launcher and missiles, while the Czech Republic donated attack helicopters, tanks and rocket systems.
Monday’s meeting included 47 nations that participated virtually, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley, the top U.S. military officer. Austria, Colombia and Ireland were among the new participants.
The group’s next meeting will be held June 15 in Brussels.
“Everyone here understands the stakes of this war, and they stretch far beyond Europe,” Austin said.
U.S. President Joe Biden had a similar message Tuesday as he met with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, telling the group that the conflict in Ukraine “is more than just a European issue, it’s a global issue.”
Citing the widespread effects of the conflict, including on the global food supply, Biden pledged ongoing U.S. support, saying, “as long as Russia continues the war, the United States will work with our partners to help be the global response, because it’s going to affect all parts of the world.”
Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, said Finland and Sweden are sending delegations to Ankara for talks with Turkish officials Wednesday about their applications to join the NATO military alliance.
Turkey has expressed opposition to the bids, accusing Sweden and Finland of harboring people linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group and followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey says orchestrated a 2016 coup attempt.
Any new NATO members must be approved by all 30 of the alliance’s current membership.
“We understand that Turkey has some of their own security concerns vis-a-vis terrorism … We think that these issues can be settled,” Haavisto said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “There might be also some issues that are not linked directly to Finland and Sweden but more to other NATO members.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, also speaking Tuesday in Davos, said he is confident the concerns of all allies will be addressed and that Finland and Sweden will be welcomed into the alliance.
“Finland and Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership is historic,” Stoltenberg said. “It demonstrates that European security will not be dictated by violence and intimidation. All allies agree that NATO enlargement has been a great success, spreading freedom and democracy across Europe.”
The NATO leader highlighted demands made by Putin before the invasion, including a guarantee that NATO would not expand.
“He wanted less NATO on his borders and launched a war. Now he’s getting more NATO on his borders and more members,” Stoltenberg said.