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NATO urged Ukraine to defy Russia's ultimatum on eastern city to send more weapons

NATO urged Ukraine to defy Russia’s ultimatum on eastern city to send more weapons

  • US Defense Secretary urges NATO allies to provide more help
  • Sievierodonetsk remains the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine
  • Hundreds are trapped at the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk

Kyiv/NEW YORK, Ukraine, June 15 (Reuters) – Ukraine ignored Russia’s ultimatum to hand over the eastern city of Severodonetsk on Wednesday as the United States urged its allies at a meeting of NATO defense ministers to step up military support for Kiev.

Sievierodonetsk, now largely in ruins, was for weeks the main focal point of the war. Russia had told the Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical factory there to stop “absurd resistance and lay down arms” as of Wednesday morning, to press their advantage in the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine says more than 500 civilians, including 40 children, remain alongside soldiers inside the Azot chemical plant, hiding from weeks of almost constant Russian bombing.

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The mayor of Severodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said that Russian forces were trying to storm the city from several directions but that the Ukrainians continued to defend it and were not completely isolated, despite the destruction of all its river bridges.

“The situation is difficult, but stable,” he told Ukrainian television. “Escape routes are dangerous, but there are some.” He did not mention the Russian ultimatum.

Moscow said it would allow civilians to be evacuated from the factory on Wednesday, but the Russian-backed separatists said the Ukrainian bombing halted the plan, which would have included driving people back into territory they control.

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Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region that contains Severodonetsk, said the Ukrainian army continued to defend the city and prevented Russian forces from capturing its twin city of Lysichansk on the opposite bank of the Seversky Donets River.

“Nevertheless, the Russians are close, the population is suffering and homes are destroyed,” he wrote on the Internet before 8 a.m. Moscow time (0500 GMT).

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the battlefield accounts.

Luhansk is one of two eastern provinces claimed by Moscow on behalf of separatist proxies. Together they make up the Donbass region, an industrial region of Ukraine on which Russia focused its attack after it failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in March.

‘pivotal moment’

Addressing dozens of NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels to discuss their next moves, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the invasion was at a “pivotal moment”. Read more

“We cannot relent and we cannot lose our strength. The stakes are very high,” he said at the start of the talks.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was “very focused on increasing support” for Ukraine. Read more

The White House is expected on Wednesday to announce $1 billion in new weapons aid to Ukraine, including anti-ship missile systems, artillery rockets and howitzers, people familiar with the packages said. Read more

The bombing of the Azot ammonia plant in Severodonetsk repeats the previous siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian bombardment. Those inside surrendered in mid-May and were taken to Russian custody.

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The mayor said those inside Azot live on well water and food supplies being brought in.

British intelligence said the fighters could survive underground, and Russian forces would likely remain focused on them, preventing them from attacking elsewhere.

But British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Ukrainian forces on the eastern front were overstretched and overwhelmed.

Kyiv said between 100 and 200 of its soldiers are being killed every day, while hundreds of others are wounded in the bloodiest battle since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.

Russia does not provide regular figures on its losses, but Western countries say it has been huge as President Vladimir Putin seeks complete control of Donbass and a swathe of southern Ukraine. Putin describes the war as a special military operation against Ukrainian nationalists.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for more European sanctions against Russia. Read more He also said that Moscow’s territorial ambitions extended beyond Ukraine into a swath of Eastern Europe from Poland to Bulgaria, without providing evidence for his claims.

Brussels, we are waiting

The conflict drove up grain prices, and Western sanctions against Russia drove up oil prices. Ukraine’s agriculture minister told Reuters the invasion would create a global wheat shortage for at least three seasons by keeping many Ukrainian crops off the market. Read more

Russia said it had offered “safe passage” for Ukraine’s grain shipments from the country’s Black Sea ports, but said it was not responsible for creating the lanes, with Turkey suggesting that ships could be routing around offshore mines. Read more

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Western countries have promised Ukraine weapons that meet NATO standards, but it takes time to deploy. Zelensky said there was no justification for the delay.

His adviser, Mikhailo Podolyak, said the defenders of Severodonetsk wanted to know when the weapons would arrive. “Brussels…we are waiting for a decision,” he wrote on Twitter.

Russian forces are also trying to move south towards Slovinsk, local council member Maxim Strelnik told television, adding that the Ukrainian army “maintains the line and launches counterattacks on the enemy’s flanks.”

In the Donbass, shelling was heard near the town of New York, where Ukrainian forces said that Russia was throwing everything into the battle.

“Three and a half months ago we were standing against the largest country in the world,” said a 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier nicknamed “Viking.” They have caused huge losses to vehicles and personnel, but they are not holding back.”

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Reporting by Reuters offices. Written by Philippa Fletcher and Gareth Jones; Editing by Simon Cameron Moore, Frank Jack Daniel’s and Toby Chopra

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.