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Russia takes small cities, aims to widen east Ukraine battle

As Russia asserted progress in its goal of seizing the entirety of contested eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin tried to shake European resolve Saturday to punish his country with sanctions and to keep supplying weapons that have supported Ukraine’s defense.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Lyman, the second small city to fall to Russia this week, had been “completely liberated” by a joint force of Russian soldiers and Kremlin-backed separatists, who have waged war for eight years in the industrial Donbas region bordering Russia.

Ukraine’s train system has ferried arms and evacuated citizens through Lyman, a key railway hub in the country’s east. Control of it also would give Russia’s military another foothold in the region; it has bridges for troops and equipment to cross the Siverskiy Donets river, which has so far impeded the Russian advance into the Donbas.

The Kremlin said Putin held an 80-minute telephone call Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany in which he warned against the continued transfers of Western weapons to Ukraine and blamed the conflict’s disruption to global food supplies on Western sanctions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron urged an immediate cease-fire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, according to the chancellor’s spokesperson. Both urged Putin to engage in serious direct negotiations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to end the fighting, the spokesperson said.

A Kremlin readout of the call between Macron, Putin and Scholz said the Russian leader affirmed “the openness of the Russian side to the resumption of dialogue.” The three leaders, who had gone weeks without speaking during the spring, agreed to stay in contact, according to the readout.

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But Russia’s recent progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up the Donbas, could further embolden Putin. Since failing to occupy Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Russia has set out to seize the last parts of the region not controlled by the separatists.

“If Russia did succeed in taking over these areas, it would highly likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantive political achievement and be portrayed to the Russian people as justifying the invasion,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a Saturday assessment.

Russia has intensified efforts to capture the larger cities of Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk, which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province. Zelenskyy called the situation in the east “difficult” but expressed confidence his country would prevail with help from Western weapons and sanctions.

“If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian,” he said.

Protests against Putin’s unjustified war have taken place around the world since he launched the offensive on Feb. 24. On Saturday, activists protested against alleged rapes by Russian troops and the war in general in front of the Russian Consulate in New York.

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The governor of Luhansk reported that Ukrainian fighters repelled an assault on Sievierodonetsk but Russian troops still pushed to encircle them. Speaking on Ukrainian TV later Saturday, Gov. Gov. Serhii Haidai said the Russians had seized a hotel on the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk.

Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said Friday that some 1,500 civilians in the city with a prewar population of around 100,000 have died there during the war, including from a lack of medicine or because of diseases that could not be treated.

The advance of Russian forces raised fears that residents would experience the same horrors as people in the southeastern port city Mariupol in the weeks before it fell. Residents who had not yet fled faced the choice of risking it now or staying behind.

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Just south of Sievierodonetsk, AP reporters saw elderly and ill civilians bundled into soft stretchers and slowly carried down apartment building stairs Friday in Bakhmut, a city in northeast Donetsk province.

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Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to convince reluctant residents to leave but said she and her husband would not evacuate until their son, who was in Sieverodonetsk, returned home.

“I have to know he is alive. That’s why I’m staying here,” Lvova, 66, said.

On Saturday, people who managed to flee Lysychansk described intensified shelling, especially over the past week, that left them unable to leave basement bomb shelters at all.

Yanna Skakova said she left the city on Friday with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons. She cried as she sat on a train bound for western Ukraine. She said her husband stayed behind to take care of their house and animals.

“It’s too dangerous to stay there now,” she said, wiping away tears.

A nearly three-month siege of Mariupol ended last week when Russia claimed complete control of the city. Mariupol became a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as of Ukrainian determination to defend the country.

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