Russian forces continue to thrust ahead in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, briefly reaching the last highway out of two key cities which they have been attempting to encircle as Western leaders reiterated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not win the war.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, meanwhile, blasted suggestions that Ukraine make territorial concessions to Russia to end the war, likening the idea to the West’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938.
Russian forces shelled 40 towns in the easternmost pocket still held by Kyiv in the Donbas, Ukraine’s military said on May 26.
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Russians were advancing on the key twin cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk on both banks of the Siverskiy Donets River, with the fighting reaching the limits of Syevyerodonetsk.
Serhiy Hayday, the governor of Luhansk Province, acknowledged that Ukrainian forces were retreating, but said the last road out of Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk, which straddle the Siversky Donets river, remained outside of Russian control.
Hayday said in an interview posted on social media, that “some 50” Russian soldiers had reached the highway linking Lysychansk to Ukrainian-held Bakhmut, and “managed to gain a foothold for some time” before being “thrown back.”
Hayday said Ukrainian forces “are slowly retreating to more fortified positions,” and indicated that further Ukrainian withdrawals would follow as “we need to win the war, not the battle.”
The head of the local military-civil administration in Syevyerodonetsk said the city has been under “constant fire” for the past week-and-a-half, and 90 percent of housing has been damaged by the fighting.
Oleksandr Stryuk, speaking to Ukraine’s NV radio station, said some 12,000-13,000 people are still thought to be in the city that had a pre-war population of 100,000 — many of them sheltering in basements.
The fall of the two cities would leave the whole of Luhansk Province under Russian control, one of the Kremlin’s goals in its war.
Moscow-backed separatists quoted by the Russian news agency TASS claimed on May 26 that they were holding about 8,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war, but the claim could not be independently confirmed.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said Russia’s “army is having some tactical success, which is threatening to become an operational success in the direction of Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk.”
Despite its current momentum, Russia cannot win, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the World Economic Forum in Davos on May 26.
Scholz said that three months of war, “the capture of the whole of Ukraine seems further away now than at the beginning of the war.”
“Putin must not win his war, and I am convinced he will not win,” Scholz said.
British intelligence also suggested on May 26 that the Russian offensive had betrayed serious operational failures, taking specific aim in its daily bulletin at the use of Russia’s elite airborne force (VDV).
“The VDV has been employed on missions better suited to heavier armored infantry and has sustained heavy casualties during the campaign,” the bulletin issued by Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
“Its mixed performance likely reflects a strategic mismanagement of this capability and Russia’s failure to secure air superiority.”
On a larger scale, the bulletin assessed, the misemployment of the VDV in the invasion of Ukraine “highlights how [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s significant investment in the armed forces over the last 15 years has resulted in an unbalanced overall force.”
Zelenskiy, in his nightly address issued another urgent plea for Western help, while lashing out at some voices in the West for paying too much attention to Russia’s interests,
He then took particular aim at former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and The New York Times.
Kissinger, 98, this week told the World Economic Forum in Davos that a return to the “status quo” before Russia’s February 24 invasion would be ideal. That would mean that Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and the separatist-controlled eastern regions would be lost by Ukraine.
“It seems Mr. Kissinger’s calendar is not 2022, but 1938,” Zelenskiy said, comparing his suggestion to the agreement that ceded part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany more than 80 years ago.
The New York Times editorial board wrote on May 19 that a negotiated peace might require Kyiv to make some concessions, given that a decisive Ukrainian military victory was not realistic.
“Perhaps The New York Times also wrote something similar in 1938. But let me remind you, it’s now 2022,” Zelenskiy said.
Britain will back Zelenskiy’s call, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss expected to warn against the “appeasement” of Putin in a speech during a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina on May 26.
“Russia’s aggression cannot be appeased. It must be met with strength,” Truss will say, according to excerpts of the speech, to be delivered to Bosnian armed forces at Sarajevo’s Army Hall.
Truss will use the speech to rally allies to deliver more weapons and targeted sanctions against Moscow and argue “we must all learn the lessons of history” in standing up to Putin, ensuring he loses in Ukraine.
There must be no “backsliding” in support for Ukraine, Truss will say.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, CNN, and the BBC