KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia asserted Saturday that its troops and separatist fighters had captured a key railway junction in eastern Ukraine, the second small city to fall to Moscow’s forces this week as they fought to seize all of the country’s contested Donbas region.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the city of Lyman had been “completely liberated” by a joint force of Russian soldiers and the Kremlin-backed separatists, who have waged war in the eastern region bordering Russia for eight years.
Lyman, which had a population of about 20,000 before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, serves as a regional railway hub. Ukraine’s train system has ferried arms and evacuated citizens during the war, and controlling the city would give Russian troops another foothold for advancing on larger Ukrainian-held cities.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin held a 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.
During the 80-minute call, 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 phone call said the Russian leader affirmed “the openness of the Russian side to the resumption of dialogue.” The three leaders agreed to stay in contact, according to the readout.
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.
On Tuesday, Russian troops took over Svitlodarsk, a small municipality that hosts a thermal power station, while intensifying efforts to encircle and capture the larger city of Sievierodonetsk.
Fighting continued Saturday around Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk, which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province. Zelenskyy called the situation in the east was “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.
The governor of Luhansk had warned that Ukrainian soldiers might have to retreat from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded but reported Saturday that they had repelled an attack.
“We managed to push back the Russians to their previous positions,” Gov. Serhii Haidai said. “However, they do not abandon their attempts to encircle our troops and disrupt logistics in the Luhansk region.”
Speaking on Ukrainian TV later Saturday, the governor said the Russians had seized a hotel on the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk. 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.
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. About 12,000 to 13,000 residents remain in the city, Striuk said.
Just south of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers worked to evacuate people amid a threatening soundtrack of air raid sirens and booming artillery. 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.
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.
A nearly three-month siege of Mariupol ended last week when Russia claimed the city’s complete. The city became a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as of Ukrainian determination to defend the country. More than 20,000 of its civilians are feared dead.
Mariupol’s port reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing mines in the Azov Sea off the once-vibrant city. Russian state news agency Tass reported that a vessel bound for the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don entered Mariupol’s seaport early Saturday.
The Kremlin said that Putin emphasized during “an in-depth exchange of views” with Macron and Scholz that Russia was working to “establish a peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated cities in the Donbas.”
Ukrainian authorities have reported that Kremlin-installed officials in seized cities have started airing Russian news broadcasts, introduced Russian area codes, imported Russian school curriculum and taken other steps to annex the areas.
Russian-held areas of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region have switched to Moscow time and “will no longer switch to daylight-saving time, as is customary in Ukraine,” Russia’s state RIA Novosti agency quoted Krill Stremousov, a Russian-installed local official, as saying Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian navy said Saturday morning that Russian ships “continue to block civilian navigation in the waters of the Black and Azov seas” along Ukraine’s southern coast, “making them a zone of hostilities.”
The war in Ukraine has caused global food shortages because the country is a major exporter of grain and other commodities. Moscow and Kyiv have traded accusations over which side was responsible for keeping shipments tied up, with Russia saying Ukrainian sea mines prevented safe passage.
The press service of the Ukrainian Naval Forces said two Russian missile carriers “capable of carrying up to 16 missiles” were ready for action in the Black Sea. It said that only shipping routes which had been established through multilateral treaties could be considered safe.
Ukrainian officials pressed Western nations for more sophisticated and powerful weapons, especially multiple launch rocket systems. The U.S. Defense Department would not confirm a Friday CNN report saying the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine.
Russia’s U.S. ambassador on Saturday branded such a move as “unacceptable” called on the Biden administration to “abandon statements about the military victory of Ukraine.”
A Telegram post published on the Russian embassy’s official channel cited Anatoliy Antonov, Moscow’s top diplomat in Washington, as saying that “the unprecedented pumping of weapons into Ukraine significantly increases the risks of an escalation of the conflict.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the Russian navy successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea. The ministry said the recently developed Zircon hypersonic cruise missile had struck its target about 1,000 kilometers away.
If confirmed, the launch could spell trouble for NATO voyages in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, and is said to be impossible to stop with current anti-missile defense systems.
Moscow’s claims, which could not be immediately verified, came a week after Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that Russia would form new military units in the west of the country in response to Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York and AP journalists around the world contributed.