KYIV, UKRAINE (AFP, REUTERS) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday (May 29) made his first trip to the country’s war-torn east since the launch of Moscow’s invasion, as Russian forces tightened their grip around key cities in the Donbas region.
Mr Zelensky’s office posted a video on Telegram of him wearing a bullet-proof vest and being shown destroyed buildings in Kharkiv and its surroundings, from where Russian forces have retreated in recent weeks.
Since failing to capture the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the war, Russia has shifted its focus to the eastern Donbas region as it attempts to consolidate areas under its control.
Its forces said on Saturday they had captured Lyman in the contested region, as they upped the pressure on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
The situation in Lysychansk had become “significantly worse”, the regional governor of the Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said on the messaging service, Telegram.
Meanwhile, on the eastern bank of the Donets river, Russian forces “carried out assault operations in the area of the city of Severodonetsk,” according to the Ukrainian general staff.
Fighting in the city was advancing street-by-street, Mr Gaiday said.
Mr Zelensky has been based in Kyiv since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale attack on Ukraine on Feb 24.
“In this war, the occupiers are trying to squeeze out at least some result,” Mr Zelensky said in a later Telegram post Sunday.
“But they should have understood long ago that we will defend our land to the last man. They have no chance. We will fight and we will definitely win.”
“The situation is very difficult, especially in those areas in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions, where the Russian army is trying to squeeze at least some result for itself,” Mr Zelensky said late on Saturday in his daily address to the nation.
Russia’s defence ministry had said the “town of Krasny Liman (Moscow’s name for Lyman) has been entirely liberated from Ukrainian nationalists.”
Lyman lies on the road to Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, which is “now surrounded,” according to a police official in Lugansk province cited by Russian state media.
But governor Mr Gaiday insisted that “Severodonetsk has not been cut off”.
In the embattled city, where an estimated 15,000 civilians remain, a local official said “constant shelling” made it increasingly difficult to get in or out.
“Evacuation is very unsafe, it’s isolated cases when we manage to get people out. Now the priority is for the wounded and people who need serious medical assistance,” said Mr Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the city’s military and civil administration.
The water supply is also increasingly unstable, and residents have gone more than two weeks without a mobile phone connection, he added.
Governor Gaiday said the sole road link to the outside world was expected to be the focus of continued Russian attacks.
“Next week will be very hard, as Russia puts all its resources into seizing Severodonetsk, or cutting off the (area) from communication with Ukraine,” he said.
Mr Zelensky discussed reconstruction plans with local officials on his trip to Kharkiv, saying there was a chance for areas devastated by Russian attacks to “have a new face”.
According to local officials over 2,000 apartment blocks have been wholly or partially destroyed by Russian shelling in the region.
Hours after Mr Zelensky's visit several explosions were heard in Kharkiv, a Reuters journalist said. A large plume of dark smoke could be seen rising north-east of the city centre.
In the city of Kharkiv itself, customers were returning to the well-known Crystal cafe in the central public park after it reopened its doors at the end of April.
Residents come by for a coffee, a bite to eat or to sample the “Biloshka” ice cream, a Crystal speciality the vendor has been serving since the 1960s.
“We need to keep employment. The city is coming back little by little,” the cafe’s manager Alyona Kostrova, 36, told AFP.
The menu has been trimmed due to supply problems and the locale is operating with a reduced staff, down to seven or eight from 30 or 40 before the war.
Far from the city centre in the neighbourhood of Saltivska, where Russian shells continue to fall regularly, the atmosphere is different.
“I would not say that people are buying a lot. People have no money,” said Mr Vitaly Kozlov, 41, who peddles eggs, meat and vegetables locally.
“I come once a week” to sell stuff, Mr Volodymyr Svidlo told AFP. The 82-year-old, who “has no pension”, lives from his garden, selling onions, dill and flowers to make ends meet.
Mr Zelensky will speak to EU leaders at an emergency summit Monday on an embargo on Russian oil, as he seeks to crank up international pressure on Moscow.
The Ukrainian president’s urgent calls by for more advanced weaponry from Ukraine’s Western allies appear to paying off, with Washington agreeing to send advanced long-range rocket systems, according to US media reports.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm the plans to deliver the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, highly mobile equipment capable of firing up to 300km which Kyiv has said it badly needs. But Kirby said Washington was “still committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield”.
On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry said it had destroyed a Ukrainian armed forces arsenal in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih with “long-range high-precision missiles”.
Russian forces also targeted a Ukrainian anti-air defence system near Mykolaivka in the Donetsk region, as well as a radar station near Kharkiv and five munitions depots, one close to Severodonetsk.
In a call with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that ramping up arms supplies to Ukraine would be “dangerous” and risk “further destabilisation”.
During an 80-minute phone call, the two European leaders called for “direct serious negotiations” between Mr Putin and Mr Zelensky, and an “immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops”.