WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States has promised more military support for Ukraine, including drones, and is considering whether to send fighter aircraft, as Russian forces relentlessly shell towns and cities in the east with the war about to enter its sixth month.
This comes as Moscow and Kyiv signed a landmark deal on Friday (July 22) that raised hopes of unblocking vast grain exports from Black Sea ports.
President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed that accord. But with heavy fighting continuing on several fronts, he said there could be no ceasefire unless lost territory was retaken.
“Freezing the conflict with the Russian Federation means a pause that gives the Russian Federation a break for rest,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
“Society believes that all the territories must be liberated first, and then we can negotiate about what to do and how we could live in the centuries ahead,” he said.
There have been no breakthroughs on the front lines since Russian forces seized the last two Ukrainian-held cities in the eastern province of Luhansk in late June and early July.
Russian forces failed to establish control over Ukraine’s second-biggest power plant at Vuhlehirska, north-east of Donetsk, and troops tried to advance west from the city of Lysychansk but were pushed back, the Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff said.
A number of people were killed and wounded when 13 Russian missiles hit a military airfield and railway infrastructure in the central region of Kirovohrad on Saturday (July 23), its governor said.
Heavy fighting in the south
In the southern town of Nikopol on the Dnipro river, continued Russian shelling killed at least one person, a Ukrainian official said on his Telegram channel.
The attack on Nikopol – a target of more than 250 rockets in the past week – damaged 11 homes and farm buildings, cut off gas and water pipes, and destroyed a railway track, said Mr Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine.
Up river in the Dnipropetrovsk region, rockets targeted a town and nearby villages, said the region’s governor Valentyn Reznychenko.
Heavy fighting has taken place over the past 48 hours, as Ukrainian forces continued their offensive against Russia in Kherson province, west of the Dnipro River, British military intelligence said on Saturday.
“Supply lines of the Russian forces west of the river are increasingly at risk,” the Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update.
In the north-east, “several powerful strikes” hit the centre of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on Saturday morning, Mayor Ihor Terekhov wrote in a post on Telegram.
Kyiv hopes that its gradually increasing supply of western arms, such as US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (Himars), will allow it to recapture territory.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Friday its forces had destroyed four Himars between July 5 and Wednesday (July 20), which was refuted by the United States and Ukraine.
Ukraine’s mayor of Russian-occupied city Melitopol, Mr Ivan Fedorov, reported that two explosions were heard in the early hours of Saturday at the Azov Sea resort Kyrylivka, where he said Russia had moved material to avoid becoming targets for Himars.
“They hoped that neither our Himars nor the Armed Forces and the resistance movement would get them there. But someone definitely got them,” Mr Fedorov said from territory still in Ukrainian hands.
More weapons for Kyiv
The White House on Friday announced US$270 million (S$374 million) in fresh support for Kyiv, saying it was doing preliminary work on whether to send fighter aircraft, although such a move would not happen in the near term.
The package, authorised by US President Joe Biden, will allow Kiev to acquire 580 of privately held Aevex Aerospace's Phoenix Ghost unmanned aerial vehicles, White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing.
While the Biden administration was making preliminary explorations into the feasibility of potentially providing the jets to Ukraine, the move is not something that would be done immediately, said Mr Kirby.
"It's not something that would be executed in the near-term," Kirby said.
Such a move would be a major increase in US support for Ukraine in its battle against Russia.
So far, the US has provided some US$8.2 billion in security aid for Ukraine.
The Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine has caused Europe’s biggest conflict since 1945, forcing millions to flee and turning entire cities to rubble.
The Kremlin says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its allies say the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
Friday’s deal to allow certain exports to be shipped from Black Sea ports seeks to avert famine among tens of millions of people in poorer nations by delivering more wheat, sunflower oil, fertiliser and other products to world markets, including for humanitarian needs.
A blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russia’s Black Sea fleet, trapping tens of millions of tonnes of grain and stranding many ships, has worsened global supply chain bottlenecks and, along with Western sanctions, stoked food and energy price inflation.
Moscow has denied responsibility for the crisis, blaming sanctions for slowing its own food and fertiliser exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its Black Sea ports.
“Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope... possibility... and relief in a world that needs it more than ever,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Russia’s RIA news agency reported that Lithuania has lifted a ban on the rail transport of sanctioned goods into and out of the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, an enclave sandwiched between Poland and the Baltic state, cut off from the rest of Russia.