NNN: Ukraine said it came under “heavy shelling” on Saturday from neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally not officially involved in the conflict, as clashes were reported in the streets of the eastern city of Lysychansk.
Twenty rockets “fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air” targeted the village of Desna in the northern region of Chernigiv, the military command of northern Ukraine said.
He said infrastructure had been hit, but no casualties had yet been reported.
Belarus has provided logistical support to Moscow since the February 24 invasion, particularly in the early weeks, and as Russia has been the target of Western sanctions, but is not officially involved in the conflict.
“Today’s attack is directly linked to the Kremlin’s efforts to lure Belarus as a co-belligerent in the war in Ukraine,” Ukraine’s intelligence service said.
The attack preceded a scheduled meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart and close ally Alexander Lukashenko in St Petersburg on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western allies are due to meet on Sunday at a G7 leaders’ summit in Germany, at which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak via video link.
US President Joe Biden will attend the G7 meeting and a NATO military alliance summit in Madrid next week.
Lysychansk under fire
Western allies will take stock of the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed so far against Moscow, consider possible new aid to Ukraine and start paying attention to longer-term reconstruction plans.
The European Union offered a strong show of support on Thursday when it granted Ukraine candidate status, even though the road to membership is a long one.
Moscow dismissed the EU decision as a decision to “contain Russia” geopolitically.
After four months, the conflict remains centered in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv forces have finally abandoned a key point, the industrial city of Severodonetsk.
On Saturday, pro-Moscow separatists reported that Russian troops and their allies had entered Lysychansk, the town across the river from Severodonetsk.
“Street fights are currently taking place,” a representative of the separatists, Andrei Marochko, said on Telegram, in a claim that could not be independently verified.
Severodonetsk was the scene of weeks of street battles as the Ukrainians, outgunned, stubbornly defended themselves.
Sergiy Gaiday, governor of the Luhansk region which includes the city, said on Friday the army had been ordered to withdraw.
“Staying in positions that have been shelled relentlessly for months just doesn’t make sense,” he said on Telegram, adding that 90% of the city was damaged.
Taking control of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk would effectively give the Russians control of Luhansk and allow them to push further into the wider Donbass.
The predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass has since 2014 been partially under the control of pro-Moscow separatists, who have established self-declared breakaway republics in Lugansk and Donetsk.
But Ukraine’s withdrawal from Severodonetsk will not change the course of the war, said Ivan Klyszcz, an international relations researcher at the Estonian University of Tartu.
“The general picture, of a slow war of entrenched positions, has hardly changed. We cannot expect a Russian breakthrough,” he told AFP.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and countries since the invasion, most to neighboring Poland.
Some foreigners went to the other side to fight. Russia said on Saturday its troops had killed up to 80 Polish fighters in attacks on a factory in Konstantinovka in the Donetsk region, a claim that could not be verified.
Andrei Marochko, spokesman for the Moscow-backed Lugansk army, said on Friday that all villages in nearby Zolote and Hirske regions were now under the control of Russian or pro-Russian forces.
In a video broadcast on Marochko’s Telegram channel, a man in military uniform could be seen replacing a Ukrainian flag with a Zolote coat of arms with a red hammer and sickle flag.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Friday that up to 2,000 people were “completely stranded” near Zolote and Hirske, and about half of Zolote was under Russian control.
Russia has also stepped up its offensive in the northern city of Kharkiv in recent days.
An AFP team saw a 10-story administrative building in the city center hit by missiles overnight on Saturday, causing a fire but no casualties.
It had been shelled before, prompting a soldier on the scene to say, “The Russians are finishing what they started.
On Friday, the same reporters found a stray dog eating human remains in the town of Chugiv, southeast of Kharkiv, where an attack earlier this week left six people dead.