For the second time in a week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has left the capital, kyiv, to encourage his troops in the part of Ukraine where the fighting is hardest and where much of the course of the war is played out. He unexpectedly appeared this Sunday in the Donbas region to visit the cities of Soledar and Lisichansk, in the Luhansk province. This is the second visit he has made to a war front after passing through Kharkov last week, but on this occasion he arrived just a few kilometers, almost meters, from Severodonetsk, already considered the second Mariupol, given the ferocity of the fighting that they are living and the strategic importance for the control of Donbas.
Lisichansk and Severodonetsk are two cities separated by the Donetsk River. The first, the one Zelensky visited on Sunday, is a town that had 100,000 inhabitants before the war, today a desolate city, through which only groups of soldiers walk and a frightened local population composed mainly of elderly people who spend night after night trying to sleep under the noise of shells. In the second, in Severodonetsk, on the other side of the river, also with some 105,000 inhabitants before the war, street-to-street fighting has been going on for days in intense combat, to which is added the hammering of heavy artillery, aviation and mortars of the Russian troops.
Given the Russian push in recent days, Zelensky’s arrival is a boost to his troops at a delicate moment in the battle of Donbas, after little by little Vladimir Putin’s army has managed to advance to close the eastern pincer , which allows him to control 20% of the territory of Ukraine, according to the president. While waiting for the arrival of new weapons from Europe and the United States that move slowly along the country’s roads, Ukraine is experiencing a delicate moment on the front, where between 60 and 100 deaths are recorded every day, as acknowledged by the leader.
In the videos released of his visit to the headquarters in Lisichansk on Sunday, Zelensky himself acts as a military strategist, acknowledging that his army “is having a bad time in Zaporizhia and Severodonetsk.” Although the Russians are “more and more powerful,” Zelensky told his men, “we have a chance to stop the invader, because we can get it back later.” [Severodonetsk] It will have to be done with very great sacrifices.”
Zelensky’s visit came amid the usual secrecy. The press only found out about his arrival when he had already left, but during the hours he spent in the region he recognized that he visited a desolate area. “In Severodonetsk there was now 10 or 15% of the population and in Lisichansk the same. There are no people on the streets, just our army,” he said after his visit.
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Days earlier, the governor of Luhansk, Sergei Gaidai, admitted that soldiers sent by the Kremlin had taken up positions on the northwestern and southeastern outskirts of the town and that last week there were several deaths and injuries. According to the authorities, heavy hand-to-hand fighting prevents the evacuation of civilians and the collection of bodies, making it difficult to estimate the true number of casualties.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken of the possibility of the Ukrainian army getting hold of Western-supplied long-range missiles. “The longer the range of those missiles, the further we push the Nazis back,” Lavrov said, referring to the line with Russian-controlled territories. This Monday, the United Kingdom announced that it will join the US and send missile systems to Ukraine with a range of up to 80 kilometers. Lavrov has also described as “hostile” and “unprecedented” the closure of the airspace decreed by Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro that has prevented his visit to Serbia. “If a visit to Serbia by the Russian foreign minister is seen in the West as something akin to a threat on a universal scale, then things in the West are clearly very bad,” he said.
While the exchange of accusations focuses on the caliber of weapons that Ukraine should or should not receive, the victims follow one another on both sides. In the Ukrainian-controlled city of Sloviansk, 63-year-old Irvina urgently calls for “a meeting of politicians to end the war as soon as possible,” she says amid a deafening siren that warns of the imminent arrival of new projectiles and that in cities like this it’s rare when it stops ringing. “I need to go for a walk because I’m going to go crazy. There is only suffering and destruction around. There is no one known in the city anymore and it is difficult to get basic goods, ”she laments on the stairs of a recently bombed Soviet-style building.
The authorities consider that towns like theirs, Sloviansk or Kramatorsk, could fall in two or three weeks if the war continues this course, which would allow Russia to control much of Donbas. Before the war, Ukraine controlled two-thirds of this region, a major industrial powerhouse for the country populated with Russian immigrants brought in during the Stalin era. The remaining third of Donbas, where the towns of Donetsk and Lugansk are located, are in the hands of so-called pro-Russian self-defense militias. Both populations have proclaimed themselves “independent republics”, recognized only by Moscow, which will be quickly united with Russia if the great operation of conquest that is underway is consummated. Putin’s goal is to occupy all of Donbas, which would allow him to shape a huge corridor that would reach through eastern Ukraine to the Crimean peninsula, which is already Russian. The annexation of Donbas would serve Putin to finally show at home a resounding achievement that underpins his idea of victory.
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