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Russian forces tightened their grip on an industrial Ukrainian city as part of their drive to control the eastern Donbas region and targeted rail links used to ferry in weapons from Kyiv’s Western allies as the war approaches its 100th day on Friday.
Russia has accused the United States of adding “fuel to the fire” after President Joe Biden announced a $700 million weapons package for Kyiv that will include advanced rocket systems with a range of up to 80 km (50 miles).
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ukraine had promised it would not use the systems to hit targets inside Russia. Biden hopes extending Ukraine’s artillery reach will help push Russia to negotiate an end to a war in which thousands of people have been killed, cities and towns flattened and more than six million people forced to flee the country.
“Ukraine needs weapons to liberate Ukrainian territory that Russia has temporarily occupied. We are not fighting on Russian territory, we are interested in our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, shrugging off Moscow’s criticism of the U.S. decision.
Moscow has said it regards Ukrainian infrastructure used to bring in Western arms as a legitimate target in what it calls its “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of ultra-nationalists the Kremlin says threaten Russian security.
Four Russian missiles hit railway infrastructure targets in two places in the western Lviv region bordering Poland late on Wednesday, governor Maksym Kozytskyi said, injuring five people and causing significant damage.
DONBAS CITY IN FOCUS
Russian forces, backed by heavy artillery, control most of Sievierodonetsk – now largely in ruins – after days of fierce fighting in which they have taken losses, Britain’s defence ministry said in its daily intelligence report.
“The enemy is conducting assault operations in the settlement of Sievierodonetsk,” Ukraine’s armed forces general staff said, adding that Russian forces were also attacking other parts of the east and northeast.
At least four civilians were killed and 10 wounded in the east and northeast, other officials said.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
If Russia fully captures Sievierodonetsk and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, it would hold all of Luhansk, one of two provinces in the Donbas that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Donetsk’s regional governor said Lysychansk was under constant Russian shelling but remained in Ukrainian hands.
Britain’s defence ministry said Ukrainian forces had destroyed bridges over the river to Lysychansk. It also expected Russian forces to pause after taking Sievierodonetsk before moving its focus towards taking the rest of Donetsk.
Capturing all of Luhansk would fulfil one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main aims and solidify a shift in battlefield momentum after his forces were pushed back from the capital Kyiv and from northern Ukraine.
Luhansk’s regional governor, Serhiy Gaidai, told Reuters that civilians were sheltering from Russian attacks under a Sievierodonetsk chemical plant that he said was hit by an air strike on Tuesday, releasing a large pink cloud.
He said about 15,000 people remained in a city that had been home to around 101,000 before Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.
The war is having a massive impact on the world economy. Russia has captured some of Ukraine’s biggest seaports and its navy controls major transport routes in the Black Sea, blocking Ukrainian shipments and deepening a global food crisis.
Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies, while Russia is also a key fertilizer exporter and Ukraine a major supplier of corn and sunflower oil.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said Kyiv was working with international partners to create a U.N.-backed mission to restore Black Sea shipping routes and allow the export of Ukrainian farm produce.
Moscow criticised as “self-destructive” a decision by the European Union this week to cut 90% of oil imports from Russia by the end of 2022, saying the move would likely destabilise global energy markets.
The conflict has also jolted Europe’s security arrangements, prompting Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership, though NATO member Turkey has blocked that move, accusing Stockholm and Helsinki of harbouring people linked to Kurdish militants.
The issue is likely to be on the agenda when Biden hosts NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House on Thursday. Stoltenberg told reporters he would soon convene a meeting in Brussels with Swedish, Finnish and Turkish officials to discuss the matter.
Besides the advanced rocket systems, called HIMARS, the new U.S. military support package includes ammunition, counter fire radars, air surveillance radars, additional Javelin anti-tank missiles and anti-armour weapons.
Ukraine has been seeking Multiple Rocket Launch Systems such as the M270 and M142 HIMARS to provide more firepower at longer range to hit Russian forces well behind the front line. The Pentagon said Kyiv would initially receive four HIMARS systems.
The new supplies come on top of billions of dollars worth of equipment such as drones and anti-aircraft missiles.
Separately, U.S. Cyber Command Director Paul Nakasone confirmed that the United States had conducted “offensive, defensive and information” cyber operations to support Ukraine. He gave no specific details in comments to Sky News.
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