The new Russian offensive in Ukraine’s Donbass has turned the eastern region into “hell”, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said, as the United States approved a gargantuan $40 billion aid package for the country.
After failing to take kyiv after launching the invasion in February, Russia has focused its attacks on southern and eastern Ukraine, devastating towns and villages with artillery fire.
Moscow forces are trying to take full control of Donbass, a Russian-speaking area partially controlled since 2014 by pro-Kremlin separatists.
“In the Donbass, the occupiers are trying to increase the pressure,” Zelensky said in his nightly speech on Thursday.
“There is hell, and it’s no exaggeration.”
The Defense Ministry in Kyiv said on Thursday that Russian forces were preventing Donbass civilians from fleeing into Ukrainian-held territory.
In Severodonetsk, 12 people were killed and 40 others injured when Russian forces shelled the eastern city, the regional governor said.
Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk constitute the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the smaller of the two regions comprising the Donbass war zone.
Russian forces have surrounded both – separated by a river marking a central front in the war – and are bombarding them to try to wear down resistance and deprive residents of supplies.
Residents of the now ghostly town are afraid to take more than a few steps outside their front door.
Nella Kashkina sat in her basement next to an oil lamp and prayed.
“I don’t know how long we can hold out,” the 65-year-old said.
“We’re out of medicine and a lot of sick people – sick women – need medicine. There’s just no medicine at all.”
Zelensky called Thursday’s shelling of Severodonetsk “brutal and absolutely unnecessary”.
Biden supports Finland and Sweden
Ukraine’s allies, led by the United States and the European Union, have provided billions of dollars in aid – including military equipment – to kyiv since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
The US Congress approved a huge arms and aid package worth $40 billion on Thursday, and the White House said President Joe Biden would sign it during his trip to Asia.
The package includes $6 billion for Ukraine to upgrade its armored vehicle inventory and air defense system.
Biden framed the war in Ukraine as part of a larger US-led fight for democracy against authoritarianism.
At the White House on Thursday, he offered “total, total and complete support” to Finland and Sweden in their NATO bids, giving the leaders of the Nordic neighbors a red carpet welcome to the White House.
Finland and Sweden had historically kept their distance from the alliance to avoid angering Russia, but changed course – despite warnings from the Kremlin – as the brutal invasion shocked Europe.
But NATO’s current 30 members must agree on expanding the alliance, and Turkey has expressed doubts over the new nominees, accusing them of what it describes as leniency towards armed groups Kurds.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “responds to the concerns expressed by Turkey”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed the remark saying, “I am very confident that as this process moves forward, there will be a strong consensus to bring the two countries into the alliance.”
In Finland, a brewery produced a special NATO beer.
It tastes “safe, with a hint of freedom,” says brewer Petteri Vanttinen.
“I beg your pardon”
In southern Ukraine, 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered this week at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city of Mariupol, Russia announced on Thursday.
The Russian Defense Ministry has released video appearing to show exhausted Ukrainian soldiers trudging out of the sprawling steelworks, after a week-long siege forced defenders and civilians to huddle in tunnels, enduring severe shortages of food, water and medicine.
Russian troops searched those who surrendered and inspected their bags as they left, signaling the effective end of what the Ukrainian government had described as “heroic” resistance.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had registered “hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war” from the Mariupol factory, which was wiped out by Russian shelling.
Ukraine hopes to exchange Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners.
But pro-Kremlin authorities in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine said some of them could face trial.
kyiv has begun trying captured Russian troops for alleged war crimes, with prosecutors detailing 12,595 charges, including the horrific bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol.
The first Russian soldier to be tried in Ukraine asked for forgiveness on Thursday.
Vadim Shishimarin admitted to shooting Oleksandr Shelipov, an unarmed 62-year-old man.
“I know you won’t be able to forgive me, but nevertheless I beg your pardon,” the 21-year-old sergeant told Shelipov’s widow.
“We are not stupid”
The conflict has sent shock waves through the global economy, particularly in energy and food markets.
Russia and Ukraine produce 30% of the world’s wheat supply and the war has driven up prices. Russia is also a major fertilizer exporter.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned this could trigger a food crisis that could last for years.
The United States and Russia blamed each other on Thursday for the worsening food situation.
Washington has called on Russia to allow Ukrainian grain exports stuck in Black Sea ports.
But separately, Dmitry Medvedev – Russia’s former president and now top security official – said on Thursday that the West should not expect Moscow to continue supplying food.
“On the one hand, insane sanctions are imposed on us, on the other, they demand food. Things don’t work like that, we are not idiots,” he said on Telegram.
“Countries that import our wheat and other food products will have a very difficult time without supplies from Russia. And on European and other fields, without our fertilizers, only juicy weeds will grow.