Ukraine battle intensifies as Western backers mull new military aid

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Russia intensified its assault on a strategic Ukrainian city on Tuesday as NATO officials prepared to debate increased military support for Kyiv’s attempt to reverse Russian momentum in the country’s east.

Officials in the eastern city of Severodonetsk said that Ukrainian forces were mounting a pitched defense of an area that is now a central focus of Russian firepower. Mayor Alexander Stryuk described “constant fighting” for Severodonetsk, which has become increasingly isolated following the destruction of bridges leading out of the city. He said Russian troops had so far been unable to complete their control of the area.

“Street fighting is underway,” Stryuk said. “Tactically, our armed forces are pushing back the enemy,” an effort that he said relies on a “huge amount of manpower.”

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, where Severodonetsk is located, said that humanitarian supplies could no longer be delivered to the city. The two sides have exchanged accusations about who is responsible for destroying the bridges, which permit the movement of civilians and aid but also military equipment and troops.

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Capturing Severodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk, which lies across the Siversky Donets river, would represent a major step forward in President Vladimir Putin’s quest to solidify control of eastern Ukraine, and would mark a Russian revival following the battlefield failures that characterized the early stage of the war.

Even as Ukrainian forces face mounting setbacks in the Donbas campaign, officials in Kyiv have vowed to retake every inch of Russian-controlled territory, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, but they say greater outside help is required.

Haidai said conditions for civilians remaining in Severodonesk are now “extremely difficult.” In echoes of the extended siege of the southern city of Mariupol, officials have said that some 500 people, including dozens of children, are sheltering in bunkers beneath the city’s Azot chemical plant.

On Tuesday, a top Russian military official offered a humanitarian corridor to permit the evacuation of civilians trapped at the plant. In a statement, Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev said the evacuees would be permitted to travel to the Russian-controlled city of Svatove. Ukrainian civilians forced to evacuate to areas under Russian control have complained of abuse and degrading treatment at filtration camps.

Mizintsev, who heads Russia’s National Defense Control Center, accused Ukraine of positioning civilians at the plant as human shields. He demanded the surrender of Ukrainian troops there, characterizing them as “militants of nationalist battalions and foreign mercenaries.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky renewed his appeal on Tuesday for greater military aid to help Ukraine defend itself in Luhansk and other areas, saying that only greater quantities of air and missile defense systems can help stave off Russia’s larger, more advanced military. Those weapons are expected to be of increased importance in the artillery-heavy battle for the Donbas region.

Zelensky cited missile attacks near Lviv and Ternopil on Tuesday, which he said Ukrainian forces had been able to only partially defend against.

“We keep telling our partners that Ukraine needs modern antimissile weapons. Our country does not have it at a sufficient level yet,” he said in a nightly video address. “Delay with its provision cannot be justified.”

How much new weaponry is provided, and what kind, may be defined on Wednesday when officials gather in Brussels for a meeting of the s Ukraine “defense contact group,” which will be chaired by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Austin touched down in Belgium on Tuesday ahead of that gathering, which is expected to include up to 50 countries, and a separate meeting of NATO defense ministers being held ahead of a June 29 alliance summit in Madrid.

When NATO foreign ministers convened in April, Ukraine told the alliance its priority issue was “weapons, weapons, weapons” — a message that is likely to be reiterated this week as the conflict drags through its fourth month.

While the Biden administration has not revealed its plans, the Pentagon’s top policy official on Tuesday suggested it would send additional multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine, potentially going farther to satisfy Ukrainian demands.

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Colin Kahl, who serves as undersecretary of defense for policy, said the four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which can hit targets at longer distance, that Washington has sent to Ukraine to date did not represent the end of its supply of such weapons.

“We’re going to provide the Ukrainians what they need to prosecute the targets inside Ukrainian territory,” Kahl said during a think tank event in Washington. Ukrainian officials have said they need at least 60 such systems.

Western leaders have gradually increased the array of arms they are willing to provide Ukraine since the beginning of the war. But many remain nervous about supplying systems that could be used to launch attacks deep into Russian territory or that Putin might use as a reason to strike a NATO country.

In separate discussions in Brussels on Thursday, NATO allies are expected to discuss a range of broader issues, including the alliance’s troop footprint in Eastern Europe and defense spending, conversations that will continue at the late June summit in Madrid.

Overshadowing all that will be the question of Turkish opposition to Finland and Sweden’s bids to join the alliance. In a reflection of how Putin’s invasion has remade European security, the two Nordic nations, which had remained outside NATO for decades, decided last month to seek admission to the alliance.

Though NATO’s secretary general and other leaders initially expressed confidence that the alliance would move swiftly, unexpected pushback from Ankara over the two countries’ stance on arms sales and on individuals Turkey says are affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has tempered those expectations.

“Many of us had hopes that we would see these two countries join us in Madrid as invitees at the table with the other leaders,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said in a press briefing Tuesday. But, she said, “we don’t know if that will come to pass.”

Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, warned Tuesday that if the issue is not resolved by the summit, they could lose momentum.

Smith said she remained optimistic. “I think the allies all hope this is something we can resolve in weeks and months, not years,” she said.

In his nightly address, Zelensky warned of a “painful” campaign ahead for Donbas region.

“We have to hold on. This is our state,” he said. “The more losses the enemy suffers there, the less power they will have to continue the aggression. Therefore, the Donbas direction is key to determining who will dominate in the coming weeks.”

In remarks earlier to Danish journalists, the Ukrainian leader said that European unity would be paramount if Ukraine is to win a battle that he has framed as decisive not only for his country but for all of Europe.

“The liberation of our territories from the Russian occupiers depends very much on this union,” he said. “If everyone continues to be strong and united, we will definitely win this war.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels. Dan Lamothe in Washington and Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.

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