SLOVIANSK, UKRAINE/KYIV (REUTERS) – Russian forces struck targets across Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on Tuesday (July 5), a day after President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the neighbouring province of Luhansk after months of gruelling attritional warfare in which both sides lost many men.
Donetsk and Luhansk together comprise the Donbas, the industrialised eastern part of Ukraine that has seen the biggest battle in Europe for generations. Russia says it wants to wrest control of the entire Donbas from Ukraine on behalf of Moscow-backed separatists in two self-proclaimed people’s republics.
After Russian forces on Sunday took control of Lysychansk, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk, Ukrainian officials said they now expect Moscow to focus its efforts especially on the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk.
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck a market and a residential area in Sloviansk, killing at least two people and injuring seven, local officials said.
A Reuters reporter on the scene saw yellow smoke billowing from an auto supplies shop, and flames engulfing rows of market stalls as firefighters tried to extinguish the blaze.
“Russians again deliberately target areas where civilians congregate,” Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote in a Facebook post. “This is sheer terrorism.”
Earlier, Kyrylenko had said both Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk had suffered heavy shelling overnight.
“They are now also the main line of assault for the enemy,” he said. “There is no safe place without shelling in the Donetsk region.”
Long war ahead?
The Russian defence ministry, which says it does not target residential areas, said it had used high-precision weapons to destroy command centres and artillery in Donetsk, where Ukraine still controls a number of major cities.
In comments marking an escalation of Moscow’s war rhetoric, the speaker of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, said Ukraine had become a “terrorist state” that was doing everything to ensure that Russia did not stop its invasion at the borders of the Donbas region as advertised.
Vyacheslav Volodin’s remarks suggested Moscow might be preparing once again to expand its stated war aims, after having abandoned offensives on the capital Kyiv and second largest city Kharkiv in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance early in the war.
In a further sign that Russia is preparing for a long war, the Duma passed two Bills in their first reading that would allow the government to oblige firms to supply the military and make staff work overtime to support the invasion.
Putin has told troops involved in capturing Luhansk – who would also be part of any attempt to capture cities in Donetsk – to “rest and recover their military preparedness”, while units in other parts of Ukraine keep fighting.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told President Volodymyr Zelensky during a phone call on Tuesday that he believed Ukraine’s military could retake territory recently captured by Russian forces.
Johnson updated Zelensky on the latest deliveries of British military equipment, including 10 self-propelled artillery systems and loitering munitions, which would be arriving in the coming days and weeks, a spokesperson said.
Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia’s capture of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk – two medium-sized cities in Luhansk, now largely reduced to ruins – had come at a heavy human and financial cost for Moscow and had taken 90 days.
“This is the last victory for Russia on Ukrainian territory,” Arestovych said in a video posted online.
Some military experts reckoned Russia’s hard-fought victory in Luhansk had brought its forces little strategic gain, and the outcome of the war remained in the balance.
“I think it’s a tactical victory for Russia but at an enormous cost,” said Neil Melvin of the RUSI think-tank in London.
Melvin said the decisive battle for Ukraine was likely to be fought not in the east, where Russia is mounting its main assault, but in the south where Kyiv has begun a counter-offensive to recapture territory around the city of Kherson.
Ukrainian air defences intercepted and destroyed three missiles fired by Russia’s air force on Tuesday at Ukraine’s western Black Sea ports of Ochakov and Chernomorsk, said Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odesa regional administration.
Earlier, Russian rockets hit Mykolaiv, a southern city on the main highway between Kherson and Odesa, according to its mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
Russia’s invasion has killed thousands, displaced millions and flattened cities, particularly in Russian-speaking areas in the east and southeast of Ukraine. It has also driven up global energy and food prices and raised fears of famine in poorer countries as Ukraine and Russia are both major grain producers.
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister Emine Dzhaparova said: “If the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s harbours of Odesa and Mykolaiv continues, millions of tonnes of food may rot in silos and tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia may starve.”
Kyiv and the West say Russia is waging an unprovoked, imperial-style land grab in its fellow ex-Soviet republic, and accuse Moscow of war crimes. Moscow denies that and calls its actions a “special military operation” to degrade Ukraine’s military, root out dangerous nationalists in power and protect Russian speakers from Ukrainian authorities.