Struggling in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops strike in Kiev

Kiev, Ukraine – Russian forces worked hard on Sunday to take the city of Sievierodonetsk, one of the last obstacles to conquering the Luhansk region. But as so often in this grueling war of attrition, the Russian military is struggling, with Ukrainian troops counterattacking and taking back part of the city.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said there was street fighting and the situation was “extremely difficult”. The city is largely in ruins and thousands of civilians still shelter there in cellars.

Conquering Sievierodonetsk would surrender the Luhansk region to Russian forces and their local separatist allies, who also control much of neighboring Donetsk. But their inability to gain ground quickly and their continued vulnerability to determined Ukrainian fighters demonstrate once again that Russia’s war plan has not gone according to Moscow’s expectations.

Even as it struggled in the east, Moscow recalled on Sunday that it retains the power to lash out in much of Ukraine, hitting Kiev, the capital, for the first time in more than a month. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, angered by the impending arrival in Ukraine of long-range missiles from the West, warned that Moscow could hit so far unscathed targets.

Even in the majority of Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine, the brutality of the Russian campaign – using what Mr Zelensky called “constant airstrikes, artillery and rocket fire” – has provoked fierce resistance, lasting anti-Russian sentiment and a new Ukrainian led to nationalism. †

Serhiy Hadai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said on Sunday that Ukrainian troops have taken back about half of Sievierodonetsk, a claim that has been difficult to verify. He said he looked forward to acquiring more supplies of Western longer-range artillery and missile systems that would be better able to hit the masses of Russian artillery shelling Ukrainian positions from afar.

“Once we have enough western long-range weapons, we will push their artillery away from our positions,” said Mr. hadai. “And then, believe me, the Russian infantry, they’ll just run.”

But even if they don’t flee, Russia is making slow, bloody progress on even its more limited goals in the east, having failed to take Kiev, Kharkiv or the main southern port city of Odessa.

The prospect of these more modern, more accurate long-range weapons has clearly attracted Mr Putin’s attention. In parts of an interview released on Sunday, he threatened to “attack targets we have not hit before” if western countries supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles, but he gave no details.

Speaking to the state-run Rossiya TV network, Mr Putin was asked about the US announcement that it would provide Ukraine with a more advanced missile system that could hit targets about 40 miles away. Even when warning of new Russian targets, he tried to downplay the missile deliveries, suggesting Western countries were simply replenishing stockpiles of similar weapons that Ukraine had depleted.

Russia is annoyed by the US decision to supply Ukraine with HIMARS truck-mounted multiple launch missile systems, with missiles with a range of up to 40 miles, greater than anything Ukraine currently possesses. Since the invasion, the Pentagon has supplied Ukraine with 108 M777 howitzers. But the range of the HIMARS missiles is more than twice that of the 155mm shells fired by howitzers.

“All this fuss about additional arms deliveries, in my view, has only one purpose: to postpone the armed conflict as much as possible,” Putin said.

As the war continues with no evidence of an end near, Kiev was hit by Russian missiles early on Sunday for the first time in five weeks, eroding its sense of relative security. At least five rockets hit a residential area near Darnytsia train station and Pozniaky, injuring one person.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed the missiles hit a railway repair shop and destroyed an unspecified number of Soviet-era T-72 tanks supplied by Eastern European countries. Poland and the Czech Republic have sent hundreds of such tanks to Ukraine. Ukrainian officials denied that any tanks had been destroyed.

“I officially declare that there is no military equipment on the territory of the Darnytsia Car Repair Plant,” the head of the board of directors of the Ukrainian railway company, Oleksandr Kamyshin, wrote on Telegram. “This factory repaired gondolas and grain trucks, which we use for export.”

It was impossible to verify either claim, but for Ukraine, its ports in the east blocked, grain trucks could be the only remaining way to get its much-needed food supplies into the world. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the United States warned foreign governments that Russia was trying to sell looted Ukrainian grain to countries desperate for food.

There were also several powerful explosions early on Sunday in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, with windows shattering miles away. Kramatorsk, the provincial capital of the Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donetsk region, has been repeatedly hit by missiles but has escaped sweeping destruction in other cities. There were no reports of injuries in Sunday’s attack, which hit industrial areas.

How Mr Putin and Mr Zelensky decide when to resume negotiations, and on what basis, remains an important point of discussion. France’s President Emmanuel Macron was sharply criticized by Ukrainian officials and some fellow European leaders when he reiterated his position on Saturday that Mr Putin should not be humiliated so that a negotiated solution to the conflict could be more easily reached.

“We must not humiliate Russia so that the day the fighting ends we can build a way out through diplomatic channels,” Macron said. France’s role, he said, is that of “an intermediary force”, adding that he had invested “time and energy” to ensure the conflict did not escalate into a wider war, including negotiating with Mr Putin for more. than 100 hours.

The fallout from that interview with regional newspapers continued on Sunday, with Ukrainian and Central and Eastern European politicians essentially saying that Mr Putin had already humiliated himself and that he must have failed in Ukraine to ensure that Russia does not end the war. resumed at a later stage, or even decide to extend it to other countries.

Others suggested that Macron’s hours of talks with Putin had yielded little value, that the war was not yet ripe for negotiations, and that France had disqualified itself from a mediating role.

There are clear divisions between countries such as Poland and the Baltic States, which have experienced Soviet occupation and see greater dangers in a Russia that has not been thoroughly defeated, and Western European countries such as France, Germany and Italy, which support Ukraine but suffer from rising inflation and economic sanctions against Russia, and wanting the war to end more quickly through negotiations.

Gérard Araud, a recently retired senior French diplomat, said: in a Twitter post talking about humiliation wasn’t the point. The real question, he said, is: “How to defeat Russia and at the same time give it a way out? To avoid an eternal war, the temptation of escalation and the total devastation of Ukraine.”

Tone matters, Mr Araud wrote in English.

“The word ‘humiliate’ gives the debate an emotional and moral tone that is a dead end,” he said. “In foreign policy, at the end of a war there is a winner and a loser or, which is much more likely in this case, there is a stalemate. A stalemate means perpetual war or compromise.”

Helene von Bismarck, a German historian, said the most annoying thing about Macron’s speech about humiliation “is not only that it sounds insensitive, after Bucha, but that it is yet another example of discussing the long-term relationship with Russia as if it were unaffected by the short-term development of the war.”

But the tension of the long war was evident, even in Estonia, where the prime minister, Kaja Kallas, was one of the most vocal voices pushing for Russian defeat and for Mr Putin’s isolation.

Ms Kallas on Saturday dissolved her coalition government, firing seven Center Party ministers from the 15-member cabinet, including Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets. The resignation of the Center’s ministers followed weeks of political deadlock, including a vote on an education bill in which the Center voted against the government and with a far-right opposition party.

Ms Kallas, who is trying to form a new coalition to avoid snap elections, mentioned the need for unity during this war to explain her actions. She said she hoped the war would have “opened the eyes of all parliamentary parties to the importance of a common understanding of the threats facing us as neighboring Russia”.

Valerie Hopkins reported from Kiev, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Reporting contributed from Andrew E. Kramer from Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul; and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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