Ukraine’s president expects Russian attacks to intensify with EU summit this week

By Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has predicted Russia will step up its attacks this week as European Union leaders consider whether to back Kyiv’s bid to join the bloc and Moscow presses on in its campaign to win control of the East of the country.

“Obviously this week we should expect Russia to escalate its hostile activities,” Zelenskiy said in his video address Sunday night. “We’re getting ready. We’re ready.”

Ukraine applied to join the EU four days after Russian troops crossed its border in February. The EU executive, the European Commission, recommended on Friday that Ukraine receive candidate status.

Leaders of the 27-nation union will consider the issue at a summit on Thursday and Friday and are expected to back Ukraine’s request despite misgivings from some member states. The process could take many years to complete.

The EU’s acceptance of Ukraine would interfere with one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated goals when he ordered his troops into Ukraine: to keep Moscow’s southern neighbor out of the West’s sphere of influence.

Putin said on Friday that Moscow had “nothing against” Ukraine’s EU membership, but a Kremlin spokesman said Russia was closely monitoring Kyiv’s offer, especially in light of increased defense cooperation between Russia and Russia. the member countries.

On the battlefield, Russian forces are trying to take full control of the eastern Donbas region, part of which was already in the hands of Russian-backed separatists before the February 24 invasion.

A main target of the eastern assault on Moscow is the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk. Russia said on Sunday it had seized Metyolkine, a town on the outskirts, and the Russian state news agency TASS reported that many Ukrainian fighters had surrendered there. Ukraine’s military said Russia had “partial success” in the area.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television that a Russian attack on Toshkivka, 35 km (20 miles) south of Sievierodonetsk, also “had a certain degree of success”.

In Sievierodonetsk, a prewar city of 100,000, Gaidai said Russia controlled “the main part” but not the entire city after heavy fighting. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the battlefield accounts.

Both Russia and Ukraine have continued heavy bombardment around Sievierodonetsk “with little change to the front line”, Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday.

In Sievierodonetsk’s twin city of Lysychansk, Russian shelling destroyed residential buildings and private homes, Gaidai said. “People are dying on the streets and in bomb shelters,” he added.

He later said that 19 people had been evacuated on Sunday. “We are managing to bring in humanitarian aid and evacuate people as best we can,” Gaidai said.


Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a note that “Russian forces will probably be able to seize Sievierodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available forces in this small area.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Ukraine conflict could last for years and urged Western governments to continue sending state-of-the-art weaponry to Ukrainian troops, the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported.

“We must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not give up supporting Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

Russia has said it has launched what it calls a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbor and protect Russian-speakers from dangerous nationalists. Kyiv and its allies dismiss it as a groundless pretext for aggressive war.

The British military assessment said that the morale of the Ukrainian and Russian combat units in Donbas was probably “variable”.

“Ukrainian forces have likely suffered from desertions in recent weeks, however, it is very likely that Russian morale remains particularly concerned. Cases of entire Russian units refusing orders and armed clashes between officers and their troops continue to occur,” said the British Ministry of Defense on Twitter.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, northwest of Lugansk, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its Iskander missiles had destroyed weapons recently supplied by Western countries.

Russian forces were trying to move closer to Kharkiv, which experienced heavy shelling earlier in the war, and turn it into a “front-line city”, a Ukrainian Interior Ministry official said.

In southern Ukraine, Western weaponry had helped Ukrainian forces advance 10 km (6 miles) into Russian-occupied Melitopol, its mayor said in a video posted on Telegram from outside the city.

An EU decision in favor of Kyiv’s final membership would put Ukraine on track to realize an aspiration that would have been out of reach for the former Soviet republic before the Russian invasion.

“Entire generations fought for the opportunity to escape from the prison of the Soviet Union and, like a free bird, fly to European civilization,” Ukrainian parliament speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk said in a statement.

(Reporting from the offices of Reuters and Maria Starkova; Writing by Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Lincoln Feast).

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