© Reuters. A woman walks past destroyed buildings at a local market after being bombed amid the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine, June 19, 2022. Photo: Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters
By Natalia Zenets and Max Hunder
Kyiv (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky predicted Russia would step up attacks this week as European Union leaders debate whether to support Kyiv’s bid to join the bloc as Moscow ramps up its campaign for control of the country’s east.
“It is clear that we should expect Russia to intensify its hostile activities this week,” Zelensky said in his video address on Sunday evening. “We are preparing. We are ready.”
Ukraine applied to join the European Union four days after Russian forces crossed its border in February. The European Commission on Friday recommended granting Ukraine candidate status.
Leaders of the 27-nation bloc will discuss the issue at a summit on Thursday and Friday and are expected to support Ukraine’s request despite concerns from some member states. The process can take many years.
The EU’s embrace of Ukraine would undermine one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated goals when he ordered his forces into Ukraine: to keep Moscow’s southern neighbors out of the West’s sphere of influence.
Putin said on Friday that Moscow “has nothing against Ukraine’s EU membership,” but a Kremlin spokesman said Russia was closely following Kyiv’s offer, particularly in light of the growing defense cooperation among member states.
On the battlefield, Russian forces are trying to take full control of the eastern Donbass region, parts of which were controlled by Russian-backed separatists prior to the February 24 invasion.
The main target of the eastern offensive of Moscow is the industrial city of Severodonetsk. On Sunday, Russia said it had captured the village of Mytiolkin on the outskirts of the city, and Russia’s state news agency TASS reported that several Ukrainian militants had surrendered there. The Ukrainian military said Russia had achieved “partial successes” in the region.
Lugansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television that the Russian attack on Tochkivka, 35 km south of Severodonetsk, had also achieved some success.
In Severodonetsk itself, a city with a population of 100,000 before the war, Gaidai said that Russia captured “most of”, but not all of the city, after heavy fighting. Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield reports.
On Sunday, the British Ministry of Defense said that Russia and Ukraine continued their heavy bombing around Severodonetsk “with little change on the front line”.
In Lysichansk, the sister city of Severodonetsk, apartment buildings and private homes were destroyed by Russian bombing, said Geday. “People are dying in the streets and in shelters,” he added.
He later said that 19 people had been evacuated on Sunday. “We have been able to provide humanitarian aid and evacuate people as best we can,” Geday said.
‘The war could have gone on for years’
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a note that “Russian forces will likely be able to capture Severodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available forces on a small area.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the conflict in Ukraine could last for years, urging Western governments to continue sending the latest weapons to Ukrainian forces, German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported.
“We have to be prepared for the fact that it may take years. We must not relent in support of Ukraine,” Stoltenberg was quoted as saying.
Russia said it launched a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbor and protect Russian speakers there from dangerous nationalists. Kyiv and its allies reject this as an unfounded excuse for an aggressive war.
The British military assessment says the morale of Ukrainian and Russian combat units in the Donbass is likely to be “changing”.
It is possible that Ukrainian forces have suffered desertions in recent weeks, but Russian morale likely remains particularly turbulent. “Cases of disobedience of orders by entire Russian units and armed clashes between officers and their forces,” the British Ministry of Defense said on Twitter (NYSE).
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, northwest of Luhansk, the Russian Defense Ministry said Iskander missiles had recently destroyed weapons supplied by Western countries.
A Ukrainian Interior Ministry official said Russian forces were trying to approach the heavily bombed city of Kharkiv early in the war and turn it into a “front-line city”.
In a video broadcast on Telegram from outside the city, the mayor said that Western weapons in southern Ukraine had helped Ukrainian forces advance 10 kilometers toward Russia-controlled Melitopol.
The EU’s decision in favor of Kyiv’s permanent membership would put Ukraine on the right track to a goal that was unattainable for the former Soviet republic prior to the Russian invasion.
“Entire generations have fought for a chance to escape from the prison of the Soviet Union and fly like a free bird to European civilization,” Ruslan Stevanchuk, the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, said in a statement.