© Reuters. A picture shows a military vehicle destroyed during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the city of Rubizhne in the Luhansk region, Ukraine June 1, 2022. REUTERS / Alexander Ermochenko
By Pavel Polityuk and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) – Russian forces tried to consolidate their grip on Ukraine’s industrial city of Sievierodonetsk on Thursday, approaching a major offensive in their offensive in the eastern Donbas region.
But in a lift for Ukraine, locked in a fierce battle against Russia’s invading army, the United States announced a $ 700 million arms package to Kiev, which will include advanced missile systems with a range of up to 80 km (50 miles).
Russia accused the United States of adding “fuel to the fire”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the delivery of the rocket launchers increased the risk of a “third country” being drawn into the conflict.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ukraine promised it would not use the systems to hit targets inside Russia. US President Joe Biden hopes an expansion of Ukraine’s artillery range will help pressure Russia to negotiate an end to the war, now in its fourth month.
After days of fierce fighting around Sievierodonetsk, much of which has been devastated by Russian bombing raids, Russian troops were making their way through the city streets. Ukraine says about 70% of the city is under Russian control.
“The enemy has entered the center of Sievierodonetsk and is trying to take a stand,” Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said at a briefing.
If Russia conquers the city and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, it would contain the whole of Luhansk, one of two provinces in the Donbas that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Conquering all of Luhansk would meet one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main goals and strengthen a shift in battlefield momentum after his forces were pushed back from the capital Kyiv and from northern Ukraine.
In the bombed-out town of Rubizhne, a short distance northwest of Sievierodonetsk, residents filled water jugs at a relief station.
Destroyed military vehicles filled streets with severely damaged buildings. Children sat silently in a bomb shelter. Outside, black smoke rose over an Orthodox church with a red dome.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told Reuters that civilians were sheltered from Russian attacks during a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk, which he said was hit by an airstrike on Tuesday, releasing a large pink cloud.
“There are civilians there in bomb shelters, there are quite a few of them left, most of whom did not want to leave,” Gaidai said. Reuters could not independently verify the account.
About 15,000 people remained in the city, Gaidai said.
Gaidai has warned that Ukrainian troops in Sievierodonetsk may be forced to withdraw to Lysychansk, which he said was easier to defend from his view of a hill.
Putin sent his troops across the border on what he calls a special military operation on February 24 to disarm and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and its allies call this an unfounded pretext for a war of aggression, and the West has imposed severe sanctions on Russia in an attempt to stifle the country’s economy.
Thousands of people have been killed in Ukraine and millions have been displaced since the invasion began.
Amid concerns about the global consequences of the war, Ukraine’s grain traders’ association said this year’s wheat harvest would likely fall to 19.2 million tonnes from a record high of 33 million in 2021.
On Thursday, Biden will meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the White House. Stoltenberg told reporters he would convene a meeting in Brussels in the coming days with officials from Sweden, Finland and Turkey to discuss Turkey’s opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
In addition to the advanced missile systems, called HIMARS, the new U.S. package includes ammunition, counter-fire radars, air surveillance radars, additional Javelin anti-tank missiles and anti-tank weapons, officials said.
“The United States will stand with our Ukrainian partners and continue to provide Ukraine with weapons and equipment to defend itself,” Biden said in a statement.
The decision to give Ukraine the missile systems was made after Washington received assurances from Kiev that it would not use them to hit targets inside Russian territory, which could extend the war.
Ukraine has sought several missile launch systems (MLRS) such as the M270 and M142 HIMARS to provide more long-range firepower to hit Russian troop concentrations and weapons depots behind Russian forces.
The Pentagon said Washington would initially provide Ukraine with four HIMARS systems.
The new supplies come on top of billions of dollars worth of equipment such as drones and anti-aircraft missiles. The Biden administration plans to sell Ukraine four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles for use on the battlefield against Russia, three sources told Reuters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said supplies would not encourage Ukraine’s leadership to resume stalled peace talks.