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Ukraine heavily outgunned in east despite Western arms

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy predicted Russia will escalate its attacks this week as European Union leaders consider whether to back his country’s bid to join the bloc and Russia presses its campaign to win control of east Ukraine.

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“Obviously, this week we should expect from Russia an intensification of its hostile activities,” Zelenskyy said in a Sunday nightly video address. “We are preparing. We are ready.”

Ukraine applied to join the EU four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. The EU’s executive, the European Commission, on Friday recommended that Ukraine receive candidate status.

Leaders of the 27-nation union will consider the question at a summit on Thursday and Friday and are expected to endorse Ukraine’s application despite misgivings from some member states. The process could take many years to complete.

The EU’s embrace of Ukraine would interfere with one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated goals when he ordered his troops into Ukraine: to keep Moscow’s southern neighbor out of the West’s sphere of influence.

Putin on Friday said Russia had “nothing against” Ukraine’s EU membership, but a Kremlin spokesperson said Russia was closely following Kyiv’s bid especially in light of increased defence cooperation among EU members.

On the battlefield, Russian forces are trying to take complete control of the eastern Donbas region, parts of which were already held by Russian-backed separatists before the Feb. 24 invasion.

A prime target of Russia’s eastern assault is the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk. Russia said on Sunday it had seized Metyolkine, a village on the outskirts, and Russian state news agency TASS reported that many Ukrainian fighters had surrendered there. Ukraine’s military said Russia had “partial success” in the area.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television that a Russian attack on Toshkivka, 35 km (20 miles) south of Sievierodonetsk, also “had a degree of success”. TASS, citing an aide to the interior minister of the Luhansk People’s Republic, reported Toshkivka had been “liberated.”

In Sievierodonetsk itself, a city of 100,000 before the war, Mayor Olekander Struk said Russian forces controlled about two-thirds of the city, including most residential areas, and it kept throwing forces at the Ukrainians in an attempt to take over completely.

“I hope that the city will hold and, once it has the advantage in firepower, we will be able to liberate it without leaving it first.”

Both Russia and Ukraine have continued heavy bombardment around Sievierodonetsk “with little change to the front line,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Sunday.

In Sievierodonetsk’s twin city of Lysychansk, residential and administrative buildings had been destroyed by Russian shelling, Gaidai said. “People are dying on the streets and in bomb shelters,” he said.

Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a note that “Russian forces will likely be able to seize Sievierodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available forces in this small area.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Ukraine war could last for years and urged Western governments to continue sending state-of-the-art weaponry to Ukrainian troops, Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported.

“We must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not let up in supporting Ukraine,” Stoltenberg was quoted as saying.

Russia has said it launched what it calls a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbor and protect Russian speakers there from dangerous nationalists.

Ukraine and its allies dismiss that as a baseless pretext for a war of aggression.

In Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, northwest of Luhansk, Russia’s defence ministry said its Iskander missiles had destroyed weaponry recently supplied by Western countries.

Russian forces were trying to approach Kharkiv, which experienced intense shelling earlier in the war, and turn it into a “front-line city”, a Ukrainian interior ministry official said.

The governor of Russia’s Bryansk region said the border village of Suzemka had been shelled from northern Ukraine, and one person was wounded and a power station was damaged.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russia had deployed an anti-aircraft missile division in Bryansk and had up to three battalion tactical groups were covering the border in the Bryansk and neighboring Kursk regions.

Towards Kharkiv, the Russians were trying to stop Ukrainian forces from advancing to the border, it added.

In southern Ukraine, Western weaponry had helped Ukrainian forces advance 10 km (6 miles) towards Russian-occupied Melitopol, its mayor said in a video posted on Telegram from outside the city.

Australia’s defense ministry said it had sent the first four of 14 promised armored personnel carriers to Ukraine, part of a $200 million aid pledge.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s plan to sell four large, armable drones to Ukraine has been paused on the fear its sophisticated surveillance equipment might fall into enemy hands, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The technical objection to the sale was raised during a deeper review by the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration charged with keeping high value technology safe from enemy hands. Previously the plan, which has been circulating since March, had been approved by the White House, three people said.

The plan to sell Ukraine four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles for battlefield use against Russia was first reported by Reuters earlier in June.

The objection to the export of the drones arose due to concerns the radar and surveillance equipment on the drones could create a security risk for the United States if it fell into Russian hands.

The sources said this consideration had been overlooked in the initial review but came up in meetings at the Pentagon late last week.

“Technology security reviews are a standard practice for the transfer of U.S. defense articles to all international partners. All cases are reviewed individually on their own merit. Through the established process, national security concerns are elevated to the appropriate approving authority,” said Pentagon spokesperson Sue Gough.

If the case to sell the drones is allowed to progress, Congress would be given a chance to block it, though that was seen as unlikely.

On Sunday, in an uplifting Father’s Day message, Zelenskyy posted 10 photos of parents and children set against the grim backdrop of war, praising fathers who “protect and defend the most precious.”

There are scenes of childbirth, as a man and woman look toward a swaddled baby in what appears to be a hospital room where the spackled walls show scars of fighting. In another, a man lifts a child over a fence toward a woman with outstretched arms on a train platform.

“Being a father is a great responsibility and a great happiness,” Zelenskyy wrote in English text that followed the Ukrainian on Instagram. “It is strength, wisdom, motivation to go forward and not to give up.”

He urged his nation’s fighters to endure for the “future of your family, your children, and therefore the whole of Ukraine.”

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