Critical ‘Battle of Donbass’ for Russia, says UK MoD

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By Natalia Zinets

KYIV (Reuters) – The “Battle of Donbass” remains Russia’s main strategic objective in Ukraine, the British Ministry of Defense said on Friday, but it has suffered heavy casualties for limited territorial gains.

Russia withdrew its forces from outside kyiv last month after failing to take the capital in the early stages of its Feb. 24 invasion and launched a massive attack in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Moscow considers winning the “battle of Donbass” crucial to achieving its stated goal of securing control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the UK Defense Ministry said.

“Fighting was particularly intense around Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, with an attempt to advance south from Izium towards Sloviansk,” the ministry said on Twitter.

Due to strong Ukrainian resistance, Russian territorial gains were limited and achieved at significant cost, the ministry added in the regular bulletin. Reuters could not immediately verify the report.

Some of the fiercest fighting and shelling took place in southern and eastern Ukraine, with the southern port of Mariupol under siege for months and in ruins. Its remaining residents and Ukrainian forces are entrenched underground in the steelworks of Azovstal.

Capturing Mariupol would link the pro-Russian separatist territory to the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.

The Mariupol city council said around 100,000 city residents were “in mortal danger” from Russian shelling and unsanitary conditions. He said the shortage of drinking water and food was “catastrophic”.

A Ukrainian presidential adviser said this week that Russia was hitting the Azovstal steel plant with bunker busters. Reuters could not verify the details.

Ukrainian commanders in Azovstal have sworn not to surrender.

The Ukrainian General Staff said on Friday that Russia was shelling Ukrainian positions along the line of contact to the south and east to prevent them from regrouping. He said Azovstal remained isolated.

kyiv STILL VULNERABLE

Two Russian missiles hit kyiv during a visit by the UN chief on Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, stressing that the capital remained vulnerable.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the explosions “prove that we must not lower our vigilance. We must not think that the war is over”.

Moscow’s eastern assault on Thursday drew fresh US pledges of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Heeding Ukraine’s repeated calls for heavier weapons, US President Joe Biden has asked Congress for $33 billion to support Kyiv, a massive increase in funding that includes more than $20 billion for weapons, ammunition and other military aids.

“We need this bill to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom,” Biden said. “The cost of this fight – it’s not cheap – but giving in to aggression will cost more.”

Putin calls Moscow’s actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine, defend Russian speakers from persecution and prevent the United States from using the country to threaten Russia.

Ukraine rejects Putin’s persecution claims, says it is fighting an imperial-style land grab that has leveled Ukrainian cities, forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad and killed thousands since the beginning of the invasion on February 24.

Washington, which along with its allies has imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow, hopes that Ukrainian forces can not only repel Russia’s eastern assault, but also weaken its military so that it can no longer threaten its neighbors.

Russia views NATO’s actions as tantamount to waging a “proxy war” against it, and this week made a number of unspecified threats of retaliation.

It cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria on Wednesday after refusing to pay in roubles, marking Moscow’s toughest response to Western economic sanctions.

Russia has reported what it says has been a series of Ukrainian strikes on Russian regions bordering Ukraine and warned that such attacks risk a significant escalation.

Ukraine has not directly accepted responsibility for the strikes inside Russia, but says the incidents are a reward. Russia has taken umbrage at statements by NATO member Britain that it is legitimate for Ukraine to target Russian logistics.

“In the West, they openly call on kyiv to attack Russia, including using weapons received from NATO countries,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow.

“I don’t advise you to test our patience any further.”

The US mission to the OSCE security body said the Kremlin may attempt to “mock referendums” in the southern and eastern regions it has captured since the February 24 invasion, using “a well-worn playbook that steals the darkest chapters of history”.

“These falsified and illegitimate referendums will undoubtedly be accompanied by a wave of abuse against those who seek to oppose or undermine Moscow’s plans,” the US mission said. There was no immediate Russian comment.

(Additional reporting by Reuters reporters; Writing by Rami Ayyub and Michael Perry; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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