KYIV (AFP) — Ukraine said Saturday its forces were managing to push back against Moscow’s troops in fierce fighting in the strategic eastern city of Severodonetsk despite Russia “throwing all its power” into capturing the area.
At least 11 civilians were reported killed in the Lugansk region where Severodonetsk is located, the nearby Donetsk region, and in the southern city of Mykolaiv.
Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said in an interview posted online that the invading forces had captured most of Severodonetsk, but that Ukraine’s troops were pushing them back.
“The Russian army, as we understand, is throwing all its power, all its reserves in this direction,” said Gaiday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “the situation in Severodonetsk, where street fighting continues, remains extremely difficult,” as well as in other cities in the Donbas region.
There are “constant airstrikes, artillery and rocket fire. As of this morning, the total number of various Russian missiles used against Ukraine is 2,503,” Zelensky added in his evening address.
Severodonetsk is the largest city still in Ukrainian hands in the Lugansk region, where Russian forces have been gradually advancing in recent weeks after retreating or being repelled from other areas, including around the capital Kyiv.
Russia’s army claimed some Ukrainian military units were withdrawing from the city.
‘Put Russia in its place’
Tens of thousands of people have been killed, millions forced to flee and towns reduced to rubble since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an all-out assault on his pro-Western neighbor on February 24.
Western powers have imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Russia and supplied arms to Ukraine, but divisions have emerged on how to react.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday that Putin had committed a “fundamental error” but that Russia should not be “humiliated” so that a diplomatic solution could be found.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted Saturday by saying such calls “only humiliate France” and any country taking a similar position.
“It is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place,” he said.
Despite diplomatic efforts, the conflict has raged in the south and east of the country.
Ukrainian officials on Saturday announced the death of four foreign military volunteers fighting Russian forces but did not specify when or under what circumstances they died.
The International Legion of Defence of Ukraine, an official volunteer brigade, named the men and published photos of them, saying they were from Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and France.
The deaths of the two men named from the Netherlands and Australia had already been reported, and France’s foreign ministry said Friday a French volunteer fighter had been killed in combat.
Ukraine also reported two victims from a Russian missile strike on Odesa in the southwest, without specifying if they were dead or injured.
Russia’s defense ministry said it had struck a “deployment point for foreign mercenaries” in the village of Dachne in the Odesa region.
It also claimed a missile strike in the northeastern Sumy region on an artillery training center with “foreign instructors.”
Fears over food
Apart from the human toll, the conflict has caused widespread damage to Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials reported a large Orthodox wooden church, a popular pilgrim site, was on fire and blamed Russia.
Moscow continues to prove “its inability to be part of the civilized world,” Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said in a statement.
Russia’s defense ministry blamed “Ukrainian nationalists” for the blaze and said its forces were not operating in the area.
Russians have hit a skete that is part of the Sviatohirsk monastery. The latter belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Earlier this week several monks&nuns were killed in the Russian shelling of the monastery. Is this "friendly fire" a part of denazification? pic.twitter.com/i5iZzsFXo7
— UkraineWorld (@ukraine_world) June 4, 2022
Russian troops now occupy a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, and Moscow has imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports, sparking fears of a global food crisis. Ukraine and Russia are among the top wheat exporters in the world.
The United Nations said it was leading intense negotiations with Russia to allow Ukraine’s grain harvest to leave the country.
Putin said Friday there was “no problem” to export grain from Ukraine, via Kyiv- or Moscow-controlled ports or even through central Europe.
The UN has warned African countries, which normally import over half of their wheat consumption from Ukraine and Russia, face an “unprecedented” crisis.
Food prices in Africa have already exceeded those in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the 2008 food riots.
The head of the African Union, Senegalese President Macky Sall, said Saturday he intended to visit Ukraine after meeting with Putin the day before to discuss the wheat shortage.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov repeated the government’s appeal for the swift delivery of heavy artillery in a telecast address to the Globsec-2022 forum on international security Saturday.
If Kyiv gets the equipment they had asked for, he said, “I cannot forecast definitely what month we will kick them out, but I hope — and it’s absolutely a realistic plan — to do it this year.”