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Russia turns focus toward Donetsk after fall of Lysychansk

July 4, 2022 Updated Mon., July 4, 2022 at 1:11 p.m.

By Bryan Pietsch,Victoria Bisset and Annabelle Timsit Washington Post

Russia is setting its sights on the eastern Donetsk region after seizing Kyiv’s final major foothold in neighboring Luhansk, a regional official said Monday.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai told Reuters he expects Russia to target Slovyansk and Bakhmut in particular, as the Kremlin seeks to take control of the larger Donbas area, which includes both Luhansk and Donetsk, in the latest phase of its invasion. While Haidai said that Ukrainian forces still controlled a “small part” of Luhansk, the loss of the city of Lysychansk means Moscow has seized virtually all of the region.

The mayor of Slovyansk said Sunday that the city had come under the “biggest shelling” of recent times, with President Volodymyr Zelensky later saying that six people were killed and 20 injured.

“We need to win the war, not the battle for Lysychansk,” Haidai said of the loss of the city, adding that Ukrainian troops would have risked being encircled by Russian forces had they remained. “It hurts a lot, but it’s not losing the war.”

In a separate interview with local television Monday, Haidai said fighting had continued in the nearby Bilohorivka area overnight, noting that Ukraine maintained control of “a small part” of the Luhansk region. “But every day, every hour, as long as we hold them and do not let them through, even here in Luhansk region, this is a positive for our troops,” he said.

However, the governor added that Ukrainian forces lacked enough long-range weapons to significantly alter the course of events locally, saying: “There are weapons, but not enough.”

Haidai also noted that most people had left the site of recent battles, with about 10,000 people remaining in Lysychansk and 7,000 others in the twin city of Severodonetsk, which fell to Russian forces in June.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told an audience of allied leaders and institutional donors on Monday that the decisions they take in the next days could be the decisive “first huge step towards the historic victory of the democratic world” over Russia.

Zelensky was speaking virtually at the opening session of the Ukraine Recovery Conference, which is taking place Monday and Tuesday in Lugano, Switzerland. Leaders from the European Union and its member states, global financial institutions and international organizations and Ukrainian officials are gathered there to discuss what Ukraine needs to recover from the war and how much it will cost.

They hope to agree on a sort of “Marshall Plan” - the American financial recovery plan for Europe after World War II - for 21st-century Ukraine, as Zelensky has previously labeled the idea.

In his opening remarks, Zelensky framed support for Ukraine’s reconstruction as a way for Europe to prove it can defend itself when its territory and its values are attacked.

“Russia’s war against Ukraine is not simply an attempt to seize our land and destroy our state institutions or break down our independence,” he said. “It is a far greater confrontation - the confrontation of outlooks. The anti-democratic and anti-European system which is built in Russia seeks to prove that it is allegedly mightier than all of us - Ukraine, Europe and the democratic world. It seeks to prove that Europe is supposedly weak and supposedly unable to defend its values.”

Zelensky said rebuilding Ukraine and giving its residents opportunities and reasons to stay was necessary to achieve peace and stability after the war. “Of course, this implies construction … great funding, colossal investment,” he added.

“It is this conference and its decisions that can become the first huge step towards the historic victory of the democratic world,” he added. “The reconstruction of Ukraine will be the greatest contribution to the maintenance of global peace.”

Britain was set to unveil a new package of financial support for Ukraine at the conference - including $1.7 billion in loans and grants through the World Bank, $12 million in direct financing for energy infrastructure repairs and nearly $50 million in guaranteed loans to Ukraine’s national energy transmission operator through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, according to the British government.

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said the European Union would set up a platform to coordinate projects relating to Ukraine’s construction. Brussels “has mobilized around 6.2 billion euros ($6.48 billion) in financial support” since the start of the war, she said, adding that “more will come.”

As the war in Ukraine continues to disrupt agricultural production and shipments, the country’s exports of grain, vegetable oils and other staples in 2022 “are unlikely to be more than 35% of the 2021 total,” according to figures from the U.K. government.

“Russia’s blockade of Odessa continues to severely constrain Ukraine’s grain exports,” the British Defense Ministry said Monday in its daily intelligence assessment. Russia has prevented ships carrying agricultural exports from leaving Ukraine through the Black Sea port. Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for the blockage, while the United Nations is negotiating a deal to avert a hunger crisis in countries that rely on imports from Ukraine to feed their populations.

Early in the war, Ukraine also limited some food exports to ensure its own population had enough.

Ukrainian officials have also accused Moscow of stealing stockpiles of grain stored in areas now occupied by Russian or pro-Russian forces, calling it “outright robbery.” Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey said Sunday that Turkish authorities had detained the Zhibek Zholy, a Russian-flagged cargo ship he said is loaded with stolen Ukrainian grain.

As the war continues, Pope Francis suggested in an interview released Monday that he may visit Ukraine and Russia to advocate for an end to the conflict - after tensions with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine kept the leader of the Catholic Church from a planned meeting in June.

The Pope told Reuters that a Vatican official had been in contact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a possible papal visit to Moscow.

“I would like to go [to Ukraine], and I wanted to go to Moscow first,” he told Reuters.

“And now it is possible, after I come back from Canada, it is possible that I manage to go to Ukraine,” he continued. “The first thing is to go to Russia to try to help in some way, but I would like to go to both capitals.”

Francis sparked a diplomatic spat with Moscow when he said in an interview that he told Patriarch Kirill, the leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church, not to be “Putin’s altar boy” in a March conversation. The Pope has repeatedly condemned the war in Ukraine and its consequences, particularly higher food prices for poorer countries. But he has at times lent credence to the Kremlin’s argument that NATO expansion precipitated the invasion and said “there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys” in this conflict.

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