By Washington Post
As fighting continues in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, causing heavy casualties and leaving Ukrainian forces with dwindling ammunition, a senior U.S. defense official said Russia is likely to seize control of the entire region within a few weeks.
The cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, in Luhansk, are increasingly under duress and could fall to Russia within a week, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Ukrainian officials said Russia is bombarding a chemical plant sheltering hundreds of soldiers and civilians in Severodonetsk, a strategic city that is mostly under Russian control after weeks of intense battles. Russia “will throw all their reserves in order to capture the city” within a day or two to take control of the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, a vital supply route, predicted Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday that the alliance remains hopeful about progress on the membership applications of Finland and Sweden, despite opposition from Turkey.
China’s defense minister appeared to play down his country’s support of Moscow and said it has not supplied weapons to Russia for its war on Ukraine.
Local authorities in western Ukraine said 22 people were injured in a missile strike Saturday evening near Chortkiv. Russia claimed it targeted a warehouse containing missiles.
A month after McDonald’s announced it was selling its restaurants in Russia, 15 branches reopened in Moscow under new ownership and with a new name: Tasty, and That’s It.
The bodies of dozens of fighters who died defending the Azovstal complex in Mariupol against a months-long Russian onslaught have yet to be recovered, said Maksym Zhorin, a former commander of the Azov Regiment that formed the backbone of the defense there.
He said Sunday that nearly 220 bodies are now in Kyiv, but “almost as many more bodies need to be returned.”
The bodies already recovered came from two exchanges with Russian forces – one of 160 war dead on each side, and the second of “almost 60 bodies,” Zhorin said.
Talks are underway for further exchanges, he added, vowing: “We must bring absolutely all the bodies home, and we will work on this.”
About a third of the bodies recovered so far were those of Azov Regiment fighters, according to Zhorin. The other fatalities were from other groups that defended the city, such as the infantry, police and border guard, he said. These estimates are based on their uniforms, the commander said, adding that it would take longer to identify the bodies individually.
“Now the very difficult work, the very difficult process, of identifying the bodies is beginning,” he said. “The thing is that most of these bodies are in a very awful state, and it is impossible to recognize them visually, for example.”
The Azov Regiment, controversial for its far-right links, was one of the key units that defended the Azovstal steel works for nearly three months against Russian attacks before surrendering in May.
The fate of more than 2,500 fighters from the plant, taken prisoner by the Russians, remains unclear.
Russians at home and abroad celebrated Russia Day on Sunday under the cloud of Western recriminations over the invasion of Ukraine.
On June 12, 1990, Russian lawmakers officially declared the sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, later renamed the Russian Federation.
According to the Russian Embassy in Britain, Russia Day is “considered to be a holiday of liberty and civic peace.” Monday will be a public holiday across Russia.
“June 12, 1990, marked an important step in fulfilling the aspirations of the people of Russia for freedom, democracy, and the breaking down of barriers that separate them from the rest of the world,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday in a statement.
“On this Russia Day, we recognize the desires of the people of Russia who still seek – as they did in June 1990 – freedom and dignity, often at great personal risk,” he added.
Also marking the day were protests held inside and outside Russia. Protesters laid a mourning wreath in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and hung a banner on its gate that read, “The last day of Russia,” Ukrainian state-owned broadcaster Ukrinform reported Sunday.
According to a photograph published by Reuters, antiwar artists in Moscow placed a flag outside the headquarters of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff. “This is not our day,” a slogan on the flag said.
A flag that proclaimed, “This is not our day,” was placed by Russian artists in protest of the war in Ukraine outside the headquarters of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff on Sunday.
The mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, said earlier this month on Twitter that he had refused a request from the Russian Embassy to fly the Russian flag at Ottawa City Hall for Russia Day.
Watson added that the Ukrainian flag, which has been flying atop Ottawa City Hall since late February, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, “will stay up until they leave.”
Russian forces have transported 15,000 tons of sunflower seeds and 10,000 tons of grain from the Luhansk region, according to the Department of Agroindustrial Development there.
Farmers in the region are effectively being paid only 30% of the value of the grain in ruble payments, the department said.
Russian forces transported grain from Starobilsk, 30 miles east of Severodonetsk, to Russia on Friday, geolocation analysis of footage carried by Russia’s Tass news agency shows.
And Russian TV outlets have reported the transport of the Ukrainian cherry harvest from Melitopol to Russian-occupied Crimea, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Ukrainian officials say Russia has been systemically stealing grain and other agricultural products in areas it controls. Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi described the Russian actions as “outright robbery.”
Moscow continues to seek reinforcements for its war effort in Ukraine, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday.
According to the ministry’s daily intelligence update, Russia is likely preparing to send third battalions – which are normally not deployed and often are not fully staffed – from some brigades to bolster its forces fighting in Ukraine.
Russia would probably have to rely on recruits or reservists to staff the units, the Defense Ministry said. The plan to deploy more combat units to Ukraine is intended to offset Russia’s heavy losses, but it could ultimately reduce the ability of brigades to “regenerate combat power after operations,” the update said.
Last month, President Vladimir Putin signed a law scrapping age limits for recruits seeking to join Russia’s armed forces, allowing Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to enlist for the first time.
According to British government estimates, Moscow has lost around 15,000 troops since its invasion began on Feb. 24 – around the same number of deaths suffered by the Soviet army during its decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Russia has extended its planning for the war in Ukraine for another four months, until the end of October, according to a Kyiv intelligence chief.
“According to our estimates, Russia still has the potential to wage a long-term war against Ukraine,” Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate, told Radio Liberty’s Current Time TV channel.
Skibitsky said Russia can maintain its current level of fighting for at least another year without needing to manufacture more weapons. “The situation is very difficult because the Russians have a significant superiority in the weapons available to them,” he added.
Russia has 40 more battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in reserve in additional to the 103 BTGs already deployed to Ukraine, according to Skibitsky’s assessment. The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War says this is highly unlikely to mean that Russian forces retain 40 full-strength and effective BTGs in Russia, but rather smaller ad hoc groups of personnel gathered from other units.
“The main goals of this so-called ‘special military operation’ have not yet been achieved,” Skibitsky said, using Russia’s official term for its invasion of Ukraine. “So Putin will continue the war against our country.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed full support Sunday for Putin, as he congratulated Russia on the occasion of its national day.
North Korea was one of five authoritarian nations that voted against a U.N. resolution to condemn Russia last month.
In an apparent reference to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said: “The Russian people achieved great successes in accomplishing the just cause of defending the dignity and security of their country, while braving all sorts of challenges and hardships.”
“The Korean people extend full support and encouragement to them,” it said.
In his message to Putin, Kim said relations between the two countries “would get closer in the journey for defending the international justice and ensuring global security.”
The Washington Post’s Annabelle Timsit and Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.
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