Ukraine ignored a Russian ultimatum to surrender the eastern city of Severodonetsk on Wednesday as NATO defence ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss sending more heavy weapons to replenish Kyiv’s dwindling stocks.
Russia had told Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical plant in the shattered city to stop “senseless resistance and lay down arms” from Wednesday morning, pressing its advantage in the battle for control of Eastern Ukraine.
Plans announced by Moscow to open a humanitarian corridor for civilians stuck in the plant were disrupted by Ukrainian shelling, Russian-backed separatists were quoted by RIA news agency as saying. The separatists had planned to take the civilians to territory under their own control.
Ukraine says more than 500 civilians are trapped alongside soldiers inside the Azot chemical factory, where its forces have resisted weeks of Russian bombardment that has reduced much of Severodonetsk to ruins.
The Azot bombardment echoes the earlier siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian shelling. Those inside surrendered in mid-May and were taken into Russian custody.
WATCH | Ukrainian soldiers carry on in the face of heavy Russian artillery strikes:
The sprawling ammonia factory was founded under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Those inside were surviving from water from wells, generators and supplies of food that had been brought in, but the situation remains critical, said Oleksandr Stryuk, mayor of Severodonetsk.
Stryuk said after the early morning deadline passed that Russian forces were trying to storm the city from several directions but Ukrainian forces continued to defend it and were not completely cut off.
“We are trying to push the enemy toward the city centre. This is an ongoing situation with partial successes and tactical retreats,” he said on television, without referring to the ultimatum.
“The escape routes are dangerous, but there are some.”
‘Unbearable conditions’ in Donetsk: UN
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region containing Severodonetsk, said the army was defending the city and keeping Russian forces from Lysychansk, the twin city held by Ukraine on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets river.
“Nevertheless, the Russians are close and the population is suffering and homes are being destroyed,” he posted online.
Luhansk is one of two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatist proxies. Together they make up the Donbas, an industrial Ukrainian region where Russia has focused its assault after failing to take Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in March.
In Donetsk, the other province, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Tuesday that homes, schools, hospitals and markets have been attacked over the past week, causing water shortages that were making life “almost unbearable” there.
NATO meeting in Brussels today
Western countries have promised NATO-standard weapons — including advanced U.S. rockets. But deploying them is taking time and Zelensky said Ukraine does not have enough anti-missile systems, noting that “there can be no justification in delays.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelensky, tweeted Wednesday that he gets a daily message from the Ukrainian defenders there saying: “We are holding on, just say: when to expect the weapons?”
He said that is the same message he has for NATO leaders.
“We are extremely focused on stepping up support,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said before the meeting in Brussels led by U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. It is the third time the group of nearly 50 countries — including Canada — are meeting to co-ordinate assistance to Ukraine.
In May, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to provide $40 billion in additional aid to Ukraine and has promised longer-range rocket systems, drones and advanced artillery.
The meeting comes as the Russian military claimed Wednesday that it used long-range missiles to destroy a depot in the western Lviv region of Ukraine where ammunition for NATO-supplied weapons was being stored.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that Russian forces used high-precision Kalibr missiles to destroy the depot near the town of Zolochiv, which is in the Lviv oblast near the border with NATO member Poland.
Konashenkov said M777 howitzers, a type supplied by the United States, were being stored there. He said that Russian airstrikes also destroyed Ukrainian “aviation equipment” at a military aerodrome in the southern Mykolaiv region.
Romania hard-pressed to move grain
The conflict has sent grain prices soaring and Western sanctions against Russia have driven up oil prices. The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum was due to open on Wednesday without the usual high-level Western participation.
With Ukraine’s seaports blocked since the war started more than three months ago, the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter has been forced to send shipments by train via its western border or through its small Danube river ports into Romania.
But the grains it has sent by barge, train and truck to the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta amount to roughly 3 per cent of the 20 million tonnes it needs to move before the new harvest starting at the end of July to avoid bottlenecks and forestall a global food crisis.
“As for transporting grains from Ukraine to global markets, it is clear we are facing a logistical challenge of epic proportions,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is on an official visit to Romania.
In other developments
- Zelensky spoke to both chambers of the Czech parliament via a video link, calling for more EU sanctions against Russia — there have been six rounds fo far — and making another pitch for EU membership. The European Commission is expected to announce a decision on Ukraine’s request for candidate status this week ahead of a summit next week.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call on Wednesday that all parties should work toward resolving the crisis in Ukraine “in a responsible manner,” Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.