Russia intensifies push for Donbas, halts gas to Finland

KYIV/OSLO, May 21 (Reuters) – Russia intensified an offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Saturday and stopped providing gas to Finland, escalating Moscow’s dispute with the West over energy payments.

After ending weeks of resistance by the last Ukrainian fighters in the strategic southeastern city of Mariupol, Russia is waging what appears to be a major offensive in Luhansk, one of two provinces in Donbas.

Russian-backed separatists already controlled swathes of territory in Luhansk and the neighbouring Donetsk province before the Feb. 24 invasion, but Moscow wants to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Donbas.

Ukrainian forces in those eastern separatist-controlled regions said on Saturday they had repelled nine attacks and destroyed five tanks and 10 other armored vehicles in the previous 24 hours.

Russian forces were using aircraft, artillery, tanks, rockets, mortars and missiles along the entire front line to attack civilian structures and residential areas, the Ukrainians said in a Facebook post. At least seven people were killed in the Donetsk region, the forces said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told local television that while the fighting would be bloody, and victory difficult, the end would come only through diplomacy.

“For them, all these victories – the occupation of Crimea or Donbas – is very temporary. And all this will return – since this is our territory,” he said on Saturday.

Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak ruled out agreeing to a ceasefire and said Kyiv would not accept any deal with Moscow that involved ceding territory. He said making concessions would backfire on Ukraine because Russia would hit back harder after any break in fighting. read more

“They’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large-scale,” Podolyak, Ukraine’s lead negotiator, told Reuters in an interview in the heavily guarded presidential office.

Recent calls for an immediate ceasefire have come from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. read more

In a conversation with Draghi on Saturday, Zelenskiy said he stressed the importance of more sanctions on Russia and unblocking Ukrainian ports. read more

The end of fighting in Mariupol, the biggest city Russia has captured, could be crucial to its ambitions in Donbas. It gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a rare victory after a series of setbacks in nearly three months of combat.

The last Ukrainian forces holed up Mariupol’s vast Azovstal steelworks surrendered on Friday, Russia’s defense ministry said. read more

Full control of Mariupol gives Russia command of an overland route linking the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, with mainland Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia separatists.

Source: Reuters