(CN) — Russian troops and Kremlin-backed forces on Friday were closing in on two key cities in eastern Ukraine, a development that has left Ukraine's military leaders with difficult choices because thousands of their soldiers are at risk of being encircled.
The small industrial cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk have been under constant bombardment for days as 15,000 or more Ukrainian troops fight to hold onto the cities.
With Russia's momentum seeming to pick up, the United States reportedly is preparing to provide Ukraine with multiple launch rocket systems capable of firing long-range missiles, according to American media reports. So far, Washington has hesitated to send long-range missiles out of fear that Kyiv would use them to strike targets deep inside Russian territory.
In Donbas, thousands of civilians are still in the cities and they are suffering tremendously. News reports, such as one by a Sky News team in Sievierodonetsk, depict the horrors of a war where civilians are being killed and seriously wounded, living in fear, struggling to find water and food and unable to evacuate.
Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, has described hellish conditions in the cities under constant shelling that he said killed multiple civilians this week. He said mass graves had been opened to bury the dead.
“The destruction is insane: in Sievierodonetsk alone, 11 high-rise buildings were damaged,” he said Thursday on his Telegram channel. “In the villages the destruction is even greater, private houses are burning. Stay in the bomb shelters!”
As Russian and Ukrainian rebels fighting for the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk gain ground, the tone from Kyiv has become more dire and angry over delays in weapons supply and support.
“Continuous artillery and air strikes, almost nonstop ground attacks by the enemy. They have superiority in artillery and aviation. To put it mildly, we’re barely afloat,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview on Wednesday, as reported by Meduza, a Russian media outlet critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Arestovych and Vadim Skibitsky, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Intelligence Main Directorate, said Russia is building up its forces for new attacks in southern Ukraine, Meduza reported. Russia likely wants to take full control of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week has reacted with anger over what he called “disunity” in the European Union over its support for Ukraine and he spoke out against Henry Kissinger, the 98-year-old former U.S. secretary of state, and The New York Times for advocating that Ukraine should consider territorial concessions to Russia to end the war.
In a video message late Thursday, Zelenskyy lamented the European Union's failure to push a sixth package of sanctions, including an embargo on Russian oil.
“Just look at the situation now. Look at the number of weeks the European Union has been trying to agree on a sixth package of sanctions against Russia,” Zelenskyy said, adding that Russia earns about 1 billion euros (about $1.1 billion ) a day in sales of oil and natural gas in Europe. Russia is accused of using energy profits to build up its military.
The package is opposed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a past ally of Putin. Orban said Hungary would suffer catastrophic economic consequences if Russian oil was banned. Now, Ukraine has threatened to shut off Russian oil passing through Ukraine via pipeline to Hungary.
“Where did those who block the sixth package get so much power?” Zelenskyy said. “Why are they still allowed to have so much power, including in intra-European procedures?”
He also called on the West to provide Ukraine with long-range rocket launchers and other heavy weapons.
“Pressure on Russia is literally a matter of saving lives,” Zelenskyy said. “And every day of delay, weakness, various disputes or proposals to 'appease' the aggressor at the expense of the victim is a new day when Ukrainians are killed.”
In a speech on Wednesday, Zelenskyy took aim at Kissinger and an editorial in The New York Times suggesting Ukraine should consider giving up land to end the war.
Kissinger, speaking via a video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, sparked debate after he advised opening discussions with Russia to avoid an escalation in the war.
“Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” he said, an apparent reference to going back to the borders in place before Putin launched his invasion in February. Back then, Russia occupied Crimea, a peninsula it annexed in 2014, and it backed rebels who occupied the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and a long slice of Donbas next to Russia's borders.
“Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself,” Kissinger said.
“It seems that Mr. Kissinger's calendar is not 2022, but 1938, and he thought he was talking to an audience not in Davos, but in Munich of that time,” Zelenskyy said, a reference to a strategy of appeasement toward the Third Reich before the start of World War II when the United Kingdom and France agreed at a summit in Munich to allow Germany to seize a piece of Czechoslovakia.
He also criticized The New York Times for running an editorial that said it was unrealistic for Kyiv to hope to regain all the territory it has lost and that Washington must be careful to not get dragged into a war with Russia.
“If the conflict does lead to real negotiations, it will be Ukrainian leaders who will have to make the painful territorial decisions that any compromise will demand,” the editorial said. “Confronting this reality may be painful, but it is not appeasement. This is what governments are duty bound to do, not chase after an illusory 'win.'”
“Perhaps The New York Times in 1938 also wrote something similar. But now, let me remind you, it is 2022,” Zelenskyy said. “Behind all these geopolitical speculations of those who advise Ukraine to give away something to Russia, great geo-politicians' are always unwilling to see ordinary people. Ordinary Ukrainians. Millions of those who actually live in the territory they propose to exchange for the illusion of peace. You must always see the people.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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