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Ukraine says it’s holding off Russia’s intensified thrust in the east

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Ukrainian forces were deterring Russia’s intensified offensive in the east, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday, even as he labeled the grinding military panorama across the country as “very hard.”

The situation in the heavily contested eastern Donbas region “is extremely difficult,” Zelensky said in his overnight address, noting that Russian forces continue to mass against the eastern Ukrainian cities of Severodonetsk and Slovyansk, strategic points that serve as the base for the Ukrainian defense of the Donbas.

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“The Armed Forces of Ukraine are deterring this offensive,” the president said. “Every day that our defenders take away from these offensive plans of Russia, disrupting them, is a concrete contribution.”

He described a strategy of wearing down and frustrating Russian forces as they continue to pound Ukrainian positions.

The president said the military situation “had not changed significantly,” which he called a positive development, considering Moscow’s vast military capabilities.

“Actually, the fact that we are able to say this on the 87th day of a full-scale war against Russia is good news,” Zelensky said. “Russia has sent virtually all its resources to destroy us.”

The president’s comments dramatize the unremitting nature of a conflict that began Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukrainian territory on various fronts.

But the Russian expectation of a quick victory evaporated as Ukrainian forces put up stiff resistance, forcing Moscow to abandon its plan to seize the capital, Kyiv.

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Russian forces eventually retreated from Kyiv in early April and redirected efforts toward southern Ukraine and the Donbas, Ukraine’s coal-producing, traditional industrial heartland. The Donbas is composed of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Since 2014, pro-Russia separatists have controlled large swaths of the Donbas region. Moscow’s forces are seeking to expand control to the entire Donbas.

In its morning report Sunday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that Russian troops “continue to advance in the east” while the forces of Belarus — a close Russian ally that borders Ukraine — “are conducting intensified reconnaissance on the border with Ukraine.”

Ukrainian forces repelled nine enemy attacks during the previous 24 hours in the Donbas, the military reported.

On Saturday, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said that Russian troops were throwing “all their forces and efforts” into assaulting Severodonetsk. The aim was to cut off the main supply route to the key city, he said.

“The Russians are destroying Severodonetsk … The enemy’s plans are to surround the area or turn it into a fire,” Haidai said in a statement on Telegram.

A Russian breakthrough in Luhansk would enable an attack on nearby Donetsk and Kharkiv provinces, he added.

Later Saturday, Haidai said the Russians had destroyed a bridge between Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, its twin city across the Seversky Donets River. The bridge’s destruction will complicate efforts to bring reinforcements to Severodonetsk, he said.

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Russia is continuing to press its offensive in the east after claiming its biggest victory in its almost-three-month assault: the full capture of the sprawling Azovstal steelworks plant in the coastal city of Mariupol. The facility’s labyrinthine network of pipes and tunnels became the site of Ukraine’s last stand in Mariupol.

The battle for Mariupol came to dramatize the violence and intensity of the Ukrainian conflict. Much of Mariupol is in ruins and Ukrainian authorities say only about 100,000 of a pre-war population of more than 400,000 remain.

Russia said it captured 2,439 Ukrainian troops when it took the metal-works plants. The fate of the captured fighters is unclear.

Although Kyiv said it would bring back its troops via prisoner exchanges, the Kremlin has yet to comment on their fate. In recent days, Russian lawmakers have called for prison terms and even capital punishment for members of the Azov regiment, a far-right Ukrainian military unit with neo-Nazi roots whose fighters emerged as the Azovstal plant’s most stubborn defenders. The history of the group has been seized on by the Kremlin to claim it is fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine, an assertion dismissed as ridiculous by the Ukrainian government.

Mariupol has been a target of Russia’s invasion virtually from the start of the war. As much of the city fell into Russian hands, an assortment of Ukrainian troops and civilians bunkered in the massive plant even as their adversaries maintained a relentless siege, along with continuous bombardment. Women, children and elderly people were first bused out before Ukrainian authorities ordered the remaining troops to surrender. The full death toll of civilians in the Mariupol siege is still unknown, but Ukraine says it could be many thousands.

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Earlier, Denis Pushilin, self-proclaimed leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, said the Azovstal plant would be demolished and replaced with a park, a residence or what he called a techno park.

For Russia, the capture of Mariupol offers the prospect of a land bridge between pro-Russia territory in the Donbas and the Crimea, which was seized by Russia in 2014. The seizure of Mariupol is a major victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Russia seems intent on pushing for further territorial gains in the Donbas, which could signal a prolonged land battle involving tanks, artillery, aircraft and ground forces in the broad eastern stretches of Ukraine.

McDonnell reported from Kyiv and Bulos from Beirut.

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