Zelensky visits Kharkiv front line in first foray outside Kyiv region

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky visited troops on the front line in the north-eastern Kharkiv region on Sunday – his first official appearance outside Kyiv region since Russia’s invasion on February 24.

“You risk your lives for us all and for our country,” the president’s office website cited him as saying to the soldiers, adding that he handed out commendations and gifts.

People fleeing from Lysychansk and other areas sit in an evacuation train at the train station in Pokrovsk, eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. Fighting has raged around Lysychansk and neighbouring Sievierodonetsk, the last major cities under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region.Credit:AP

The visit came as Zelensky’s troops resisted a Russian assault on Sievierodonetsk, the largest city they still hold in the Luhansk region of the Donbas.

The shelling was so intense it was not possible to assess casualties and damage, Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said. Dozens of buildings have been destroyed in the past few days.

“The situation has extremely escalated,” Gaidai said.

Zelensky’s government urged the West to provide it with longer-range weapons in order to turn the tide in the war, now in its fourth month.

A man carries his belongings out of the heavily damaged apartment building in Chernihiv, north-east of Kyiv.Credit:Getty Images

The battle for Sievierodonetsk has become the focus of attention as Russia ekes out slow but solid gains in the Donbas, which is made up of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Russia has concentrated huge firepower on a small area, a contrast to earlier phases of the conflict when its forces were often spread thinly.

Gaidai said Russian forces had dug in at the Myr hotel on Sievierodonetsk’s northern edge.

“They cannot advance further into the city and are taking casualties, but we are not able right now to push them out of the hotel,” he said on Telegram on Sunday.

Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the Russians had still not managed to encircle city.

Both sides were experiencing serious losses themselves – civilians as well as combatants, the institute said.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin is inflicting unspeakable suffering on Ukrainians and demanding horrible sacrifices of his own people in an effort to seize a city that does not merit the cost, even for him,” they said.

Russia’s fixation on Sievierodonetsk had drawn resources from other battlefronts and as a result, Putin had made little progress elsewhere.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine that aimed to seize and occupy the entire country has become a desperate and bloody offensive to capture a single city in the east while defending important but limited gains in the south and east,” they said.

Zelensky said the military situation in the Donbas – parts of which are controlled by Moscow-backed separatists – was very complicated, but that defences were holding up in several places, including Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

“It’s indescribably difficult there. And I am grateful to all those who withstood this onslaught,” he said in a video address.

Zelensky calls for more weapons

Zelensky voiced hope that Ukraine’s allies would provide additional – and much-needed – weapons. Ukraine has started receiving Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and self-propelled howitzers from the US, his defence minister said on Saturday.

Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak repeated a call for US-made long-range multiple-rocket launchers. US officials said such systems are being considered, with a decision possible in the coming days.

“It is hard to fight when you are attacked from 70 kilometres away and have nothing to fight back with,” Podolyak posted on Twitter. “We need effective weapons.”

Zelensky said in a television interview he believed Russia would agree to talks if Ukraine could recapture all the territory it has lost since the invasion.

Still, Zelensky ruled out the idea of using force to win back all the land Ukraine has lost to Russia since 2014, which includes the southern peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Moscow that year.

“I do not believe that we can restore all of our territory by military means. If we decide to go that way, we will lose hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.


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