KRAMATORSK, Ukraine –
A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in seizing an eastern Ukrainian province essential to his wartime goals, a city in the path of Moscow’s offensive came under sustained bombardment, its mayor said Tuesday.
Mayor Vadim Lyakh said on Facebook that “massive shelling” hit Sloviansk, which had a population of about 107,000 before Russia invaded Ukraine more than four months ago. The mayor, who urged residents hours earlier to evacuate, advised them to take shelter in shelters.
The shelling of Sloviansk underscored fears that Russian forces were poised to push further into Ukraine’s Donbas region, a largely Russian-speaking industrial area where the country’s most experienced soldiers are concentrated.
Sloviansk has come under rocket and artillery fire during Russia’s war in Ukraine, but shelling increased in recent days after Moscow seized the last major city in neighboring Luhansk province, Lyakh said.
“It is important to evacuate as many people as possible,” he warned Tuesday morning, adding that shelling damaged 40 houses on Monday.
The Ukrainian army withdrew its troops from the city of Lysychansk on Sunday to prevent encirclement. Russia’s defense minister and Putin said the city’s subsequent capture put Moscow in control of all of Lugansk, one of two provinces that make up Donbas.
Ukraine’s president’s office said the Ukrainian military was still defending a small part of Luhansk and trying to buy time to establish fortified positions in nearby areas.
The question now is whether Russia can muster enough force to complete its takeover of Donbas by taking Donetsk province as well. Putin acknowledged on Monday that the Russian troops who fought in Lugansk need to “rest a bit and strengthen their combat capacity.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the war in Ukraine will continue until all the goals set by Putin are achieved. However, Shoigu said that Moscow’s “top priorities” at the moment were “preserving the life and health” of the troops, as well as “excluding the threat to the security of civilians.”
When Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, his stated goals were to defend the people of Donbas against alleged aggression from Kyiv and the “demilitarization” and “de-enazifaction” of Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists fought Ukrainian forces and controlled much of Donbas for eight years. Before the invasion, Putin recognized the independence of the two self-proclaimed breakaway republics in the region. He also tried to portray the tactics of the Ukrainian and government forces as similar to those of Nazi Germany, claims for which no evidence has emerged.
The Ukrainian Army General Staff said Russian forces also shelled several Donetsk towns and villages around Sloviansk the day before, but were repelled as they tried to advance on a town some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city. South of the city, Russian forces were trying to advance towards two more towns and shelling areas near Kramatorsk.
Meanwhile, Moscow-installed officials in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region announced on Tuesday the formation of a new regional government there, with a former Russian official at the helm.
Sergei Yeliseyev, the head of the new Moscow-backed government in Kherson, is a former deputy prime minister of Russia’s western exclave of Kaliningrad and also used to work for Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, according to media reports.
It was not immediately clear what would become of the “civilian-military administration” that the Kremlin installed earlier. The head of the administration, Vladimir Saldo, said in a Telegram statement that the new government was “not temporary, not military, not some kind of interim administration, but a proper governing body.”
“The fact that not only Kherson residents, but also Russian officials, are part of this government clearly speaks about the direction the Kherson region will take in the future,” he said. “This address is toward Russia.”
There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials.
In other developments:
— The 30 NATO allies signed the accession protocols of Sweden and Finland, and sent the membership offers of the two nations to the alliance capitals for legislative approval. The move further increases Russia’s strategic isolation following its invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February and military fighting there since. Alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed the signing as “a truly historic moment for Finland, Sweden and NATO”.
— The war in Ukraine has stolen millions of dollars from countries in other crises. Somalia, facing food shortages caused largely by war, may be the most vulnerable. Its aid funding is less than half last year’s level, while Western donors, overwhelmingly, have sent more than $1.7 billion to respond to the war in Europe. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Congo and the Palestinian territories are similarly affected.
— Spain boosted military spending in an attempt to meet its NATO commitment to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense. Spain’s Cabinet approved a one-time Defense Ministry spending of almost 1 billion euros ($1 billion) that the government said was needed to pay for the unexpected costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Spain has sent military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has deployed more troops and aircraft to NATO missions in Eastern Europe.