Russia has continued to pour forces and equipment into its all-out offensive in eastern Ukraine, where it seeks to encircle Ukrainian troops in two cities, as Kyiv warns that the country is facing an existential battle that could determine its fate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in the Donbas was “extremely difficult” as Russia steps up its assault.
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Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle the easternmost sector of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, with focus on the the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, located on the eastern and western banks of the Siverskiy Donets River.
The fall of the two cities would leave the whole of the Luhansk region under Russian control, one of the Kremlin’s goals in its war.
Fighting has reached the outskirts of Severodonetsk, Serhiy Hayday, governor of the Luhansk region, said earlier on May 25. “Russian troops have advanced far enough that they can already fire mortars” on the city, he said in a statement on social media.
Police in Lysychansk are collecting bodies of people killed to bury them in mass graves, Hayday said. Some 150 people have been buried in a mass grave in one Lysychansk district, he added.
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 Severodonetsk.”
Severodonetsk and Bakhmut, a town to the southeast, were in danger of being encircled, Arestovych said. It’s possible that settlements “will be abandoned,” he said. “It’s possible we will have heavy losses.”
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said on May 24 that battles being fought in eastern Ukraine could determine its future.
“Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia unfolded against our country,” Motuzyanyk told a televised briefing. “The situation on the [eastern] front is extremely difficult, because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided [there] right now.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 25 that it had finished demining the port of Mariupol and that foreign ships stuck there will be able to leave. Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a press briefing that the port had started “to function normally.”
The United Nations has urged Russian authorities to release grain stuck in Ukrainian ports to avert global food shortages.
Meanwhile, British intelligence warned that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s key port of Odesa has caused grain supply shortfalls that cannot be compensated by overland exports.
WATCH: Veronika from Ukraine’s Donetsk Region lost her family in an attack on the high-rise residential building where she lived. Hit by shrapnel, she was left in a coma. Kira from Kharkiv was hit by shelling when she was walking in a park. Her friend was killed.
The British Defense Ministry assessed in its daily bulletin on May 25 that as long as the threat of Russia’s naval blockade keeps deterring access by commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports, “the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products.”
On May 24, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called for talks with Moscow on unlocking wheat exports trapped in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s sea blockade.
“Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds,” von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.
Russia is using food supplies as a weapon with global repercussions, just like it does in the energy sector, von der Leyen said.
The war and Western sanctions against Russia have sent the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer, and energy soaring.
Many countries, including some of the world’s poorest, count on Russia and Ukraine, which together account for nearly one-third of the global wheat supply, for more than half of their wheat imports.
The Russian State Duma on May 25 approved a bill that would raise the upper age limit for military personnel serving in the Russian army on a contractual basis.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly address that the move showed that the Russians “no longer have enough young people” to fight the war as he again appealed for weapons.
“We still need the help of partners, especially weapons for Ukraine. Full help! No exceptions, no restrictions,” the president said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 25 urged governments and companies to “kill Russian exports” as a way to help push Moscow to end its war against Ukraine.
“My message is very simple. Kill Russian exports,” Kuleba said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25.
“Stop buying from Russia. Stop allowing them to make money which they can invest in the war machine that destroys, kills, rapes, and tortures people in Ukraine.”
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched the war against Ukraine on February 24, while the European Union, the United States, and many Western allies have adopted harsh sanctions against Moscow, senior state officials, and President Vladimir Putin and the billionaires seen close to him.
But Kuleba said more must be done given the impact of the war on Ukraine is still far greater than the West’s moves against Russia.
Ukraine’s economy is “suffering more from the Russian destruction and attacks than the Russian economy suffers from sanctions.”
“As long as Russia makes money on selling oil and gas, their pockets are pretty full,” he added.
The European Union is currently working on a proposal to ban the import of Russian oil and gas across the 27-nation bloc, but several countries, especially Hungary, have said they will need help through aid and a phase-in period if they are to sign on to the measure.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and the BBC