Ukraine said it came under “massive bombardment” Saturday from neighbouring 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 Chernigiv region, Ukraine’s northern military command said.
It said infrastructure was hit, but no casualties had yet been reported.
Belarus has provided logistic support to Moscow since the February 24 invasion, particularly in the first few weeks, and like Russia has been targeted by Western sanctions — but is officially not involved in the conflict.
“Today’s strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine,” the Ukrainian intelligence service said.
The attack came ahead of a planned meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarussian counterpart and close ally Alexander Lukashenko in Saint Petersburg on Saturday.
Ukraine’s Western allies meanwhile will gather on Sunday at a summit of G7 leaders in Germany, during which Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is set to speak via video-link.
US President Joe Biden will be attending the G7 meeting and a summit of the NATO military alliance in Madrid next week.
Lysychansk under fire
The Western allies will take stock of the effectiveness of sanctions imposed so far against Moscow, consider possible new aid for Ukraine, and begin turning their eye to longer-term reconstruction plans.
The European Union offered a strong show of support on Thursday when it granted Ukraine candidate status, although the path to membership is long.
Moscow dismissed the EU decision as a move to “contain Russia” geopolitically.
After four months, the conflict remains focused on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces have finally given up a key hold-out, the industrial city of Severodonetsk.
On Saturday, pro-Moscow separatists reported that Russian troops and allies had entered Lysychansk, the city across the river from Severodonetsk.
“Street fighting is currently taking place,” a representative of the separatists, Andrei Marochko, said on Telegram, in a claim that could not be independently verified.
Severodonetsk has been the scene of weeks of street battles as outgunned Ukrainians put up a stubborn defence.
Sergiy Gaiday, governor of the Lugansk region that includes the city, said on Friday that the military had received the order to withdraw.
“Remaining in positions that have been relentlessly shelled for months just doesn’t make sense,” he said on Telegram, adding that 90 percent of the city had been damaged.
Taking control of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk would effectively give the Russians control of Lugansk, and allow them to push further into the wider Donbas.
The mainly Russian-speaking Donbas has since 2014 been partially under the control of pro-Moscow separatists, who set up self-declared breakaway republics in Lugansk and Donetsk.
But Ukraine’s retreat from Severodonetsk will not change the course of the war, said Ivan Klyszcz, an international relations researcher at Estonia’s University of Tartu.
“The big picture — of a slow war of entrenched positions — has hardly changed. We cannot expect a massive Russian breakthrough,” he told AFP.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country since the invasion, the majority to neighbouring Poland.
Some foreigners have gone the other way to fight. Russia said Saturday its troops had killed up to 80 Polish fighters in strikes on a factory in Konstantinovka in the Donetsk region, a claim that could not be verified.
Andrei Marochko, a spokesman for the Moscow-backed army of Lugansk, said Friday that all the villages in the neighbouring areas of Zolote and Hirske were now under the control of Russian or pro-Russian forces.
In a video on Marochko’s Telegram channel, a man in military clothing could be seen replacing a Ukrainian flag featuring a Zolote coat of arms with a red hammer-and-sickle flag.
Russia’s defence ministry said Friday that up to 2,000 people were “completely blocked” near Zolote and Hirske, and that around half of Zolote was under Russian control.
Russia has also intensified its offensive in the northern city of Kharkiv in recent days.
An AFP team on Saturday saw a 10-storey administrative building in the city-centre hit by missiles overnight, causing a fire but no casualties.
It had already been bombed, prompting one soldier on the scene to note: “The Russians are finishing what they started.”
On Friday, the same reporters found a stray dog eating human remains in the town of Chuguiv, southeast of Kharkiv, where an attack earlier this week left six dead.