Ukraine says troops could withdraw from eastern region if Russia advances

  • Ukrainian governor says Russian troops are moving into Luhansk city
  • Moscow-backed separatists take control of Lyman
  • EU moving towards partial ban on Russian oil
  • Putin again links grain exports to lifting sanctions

KYIV/POPASNA, Ukraine, May 27 (Reuters) – Ukraine said on Friday that its troops may have to withdraw from their last resistance zone in Luhansk to avoid being captured by Russian forces continuing an advance in the east that could destroy the momentum of the three month old war.

A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of completely taking Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions. His forces have gained ground in the two areas known collectively as the Donbas, while destroying some towns to wasteland.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian troops entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest Donbas city still in Ukraine’s hands, after spending days trying to trap Ukrainian troops. Gaidai said 90% of the city’s buildings were damaged.

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“The Russians will not be able to conquer the Luhansk region in the coming days, as analysts have predicted,” Gaidai said on Telegram, referring to Sievierodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets River. read more

“We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, we may have to retreat so as not to be surrounded.”

Moscow’s separatist accomplices said they were now in control of Lyman, a railway junction west of Sievierodonetsk. Ukraine said Russia had taken most of Lyman, but its troops were blocking an advance towards Sloviansk, a town half an hour’s drive to the southwest.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine protects his country “as much as our current defense resources allow”. The Ukrainian army said Friday it had repulsed eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk, which destroyed tanks and armored vehicles.

“If the occupiers think Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian,” Zelenskiy said in an evening speech.

‘AT GREAT COST’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Bloomberg UK that Putin “continues to chew through the ground in Donbas at great cost to himself and to the Russian military”.

Russian troops advanced after breaching Ukrainian lines last week in the town of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have now captured several villages northwest of Popasna, the British Ministry of Defense said.

Popasna was reached on Thursday by Reuters journalists in Russian-occupied territory and was left in ruins. In a courtyard lay the bloated body of a dead man in combat uniform.

Natalia Kovalenko had left the basement where she was hiding to live in the wreckage of her flat, the windows and balcony had been blown away. She said a grenade hit the courtyard outside, killing two people and injuring eight.

“I just need to fix the window somehow. The wind is still bad,” she said. “We’re tired of being so scared.”

Russia’s eastern victories follow a Ukrainian counter-offensive that drove Moscow’s forces back from Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv in May. But Ukrainian forces have failed to attack Russian supply lines to the Donbas.

Russian troops fired on parts of Kharkov for the first time in days on Thursday. Local authorities said nine people were killed. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians.

In the south, where Moscow has taken much of the territory since the February 24 invasion, including the strategic port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials believe Russia is seeking permanent rule.

The Ukrainian army said Russia was shipping military equipment from Russia-annexed Crimea to build defenses against any counter-attack, and that it was mining the banks of a reservoir behind a dam in the Dnipro River separating the troops.

HARD TO LEAVE

In the Kherson region, north of Crimea, Russian forces were daily strengthening defenses and shelling Ukrainian-controlled areas, Ukraine’s governor of the region Hennadiy Laguta said at a media briefing.

He said the humanitarian situation in some areas was critical and people found it almost impossible to leave occupied territory, with the exception of a convoy of 200 cars that left on Wednesday.

On the diplomatic front, European Union officials said an agreement could be reached on Sunday to ban shipments of Russian oil by sea, which accounts for about 75% of the bloc’s supply, but not through pipelines, a compromise to help Hungary win and unblock new penalties. read more

Zelenskiy has criticized the EU for hesitating over a ban on Russian energy, saying the bloc financed Moscow’s war effort and that delaying “only means more Ukrainians will be killed.”

In a telephone conversation with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Putin insisted that a global food crisis caused by the conflict can only be solved if the West lifts the sanctions.

Nehammer, who visited Russia in April, said Putin was willing to talk about a prisoner exchange with Ukraine, but said: “Whether he is really ready to negotiate is a complex question.”

Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports has halted grain supplies, pushing up world prices, with both countries being major grain exporters. Russia accuses Ukraine of mining in the ports and Ukraine has described Russia’s position as “blackmail”.

Russia, which calls its invasion a “special military operation,” launched its attack in part to ensure Ukraine would not join NATO’s US-led military alliance.

But the war has prompted Sweden and Finland, both neutral during the Cold War, to sign up to NATO in one of the most significant changes to European security in decades.

The Nordic states’ bids have been turned upside down by the opposition of NATO member Turkey, which claims they are harboring people associated with a militant group it considers a terrorist organization. Swedish and Finnish diplomats met in Turkey on Wednesday to try to bridge their differences.

“It is not an easy process,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Friday, adding that Sweden and Finland will have to take “difficult” steps to win Ankara’s support.

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Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Conor Humphries and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Vitaliy Hnidyi in Kharkiv and Reuters journalists in Popasna; Written by Peter Graff, Catherine Evans and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Edmund Blair and Grant McCool

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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