Forces Battle for Ukraine City, as E.U. Ratchets Up Responses
BRUSSELS — Russian troops battled their way into the devastated Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk on Tuesday, as their slow, brutal offensive in eastern Ukraine shifted from indiscriminate shelling to street fighting, with thousands of civilians still trapped among the ruins.
With Moscow pressing its advance despite heavy losses, Ukraine’s allies looked to new ways to raise the price Russia pays for aggression, while easing the pain it causes elsewhere. A day after the European Union agreed to ban most Russian oil imports, the bloc’s focus shifted to aiding Ukraine and helping it resume food exports that are vital to feeding the world.
Wrapping up a two-day summit meeting in Brussels, E.U. leaders agreed to $9.7 billion in aid to Ukraine this year, albeit with demands attached to fight the corruption that has plagued the country. And Ursula von der Leyen, president of the E.U. executive commission, said the developing global food crisis is “only the fault of Russia,” which has seized or blockaded all of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
“The only reason we are struggling with this is because of this brutal, unjustified war against Ukraine,” she said.
Details of the oil embargo have yet to be hammered out, but E.U. officials said that it would reduce imports of Russian oil by 90 percent by year’s end — a severe blow to a major source of revenue for Vladimir V. Putin’s government and its ability to pay for high-tech weaponry.
The agreement reached on Monday allows continued imports through pipelines, effectively exempting Hungary, which relies very heavily on Russian energy, after the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban said a complete embargo would be “an atomic bomb being dropped on the Hungarian economy.” Mr. Orban, who has been friendlier with Mr. Putin than any other E.U. leader, had held up the deal for weeks, raising alarms about the ability of the bloc, which operates by consensus, to continue ratcheting up its actions against Russia.
Some E.U. member countries are calling for confiscating, rather than just freezing, Russian assets abroad, but the Biden administration has so far resisted that move.
In Ukraine, Russia’s military has been trying to cut off the easternmost pocket still controlled by Ukrainian troops, and in particular the eastern tip, Sievierodonetsk, hammering the city for weeks with artillery before trying to take it. Russian troops fought their way into the outskirts of the city on Monday, and on Tuesday were “gradually moving toward downtown,” said Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Ukrainian regional military administration.
But about 12,000 residents, out of a prewar population around 100,000, remain in the ruined city, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid group, without enough food, water, medicine — or shelter from continued bombardment. Many of them are old or infirm people who were unable or unwilling to join the millions fleeing westward from eastern Ukraine.
“It breaks my heart,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former United Nations humanitarian coordinator. “It is really a war on the elderly.”
Thousands more Ukrainian civilians remain in cities very near the front lines, like Lysychansk and Bakhmut, and others like Sloviansk and Kramatorsk that are farther west but still in the path of Russian offensives, and all have seen civilians and civilian infrastructure bombarded. An unknown number are still in territory seized by Russia and subjected to Moscow’s increasingly harsh rule in the eastern Donbas region, the Kharkiv area north of it, and the coastal areas to the southwest.
Early in the war, some Russian offensives failed because they were spread too thin. Around Sievierodonetsk and other parts of Donbas, “Russia has achieved greater local successes than earlier in the campaign by massing forces and fires in a relatively small area,” the British defense ministry said Tuesday in its latest intelligence assessment.
Western military analysts say the Russians probably set out to encircle a large pocket, trapping Ukrainian troops as they did those defending the southern city of Mariupol. They have shrunk the pocket, but have so far been unable to cut it off.
Heavy losses have reduced Russia’s fighting strength by about 20 percent, a Pentagon official said Tuesday. Despite a leadership shake-up, U.S. officials say the Russian military’s continued mistakes and plodding pace are worsening its own attrition.
Since they invaded on Feb. 24, the Kremlin’s forces have been stretched by major troop casualties and equipment losses, and by fierce and shrewd Ukrainian resistance, surprising analysts who expected a quick Russian victory.
Now, the Ukrainians are mounting a counteroffensive against the captured southern city of Kherson, partly in hopes of forcing Russia to divert forces from Donbas.
Ned Price, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, cited statements by several Russian officials indicating that the Kremlin plans to annex the territory it has seized.
“We remain concerned about steps Russia is taking to attempt to institutionalize control over sovereign Ukrainian territory, particularly in the Kherson region,” he said at a news briefing. He added, “Multiple reports indicate Russian forces have forcibly removed legitimate Ukrainian government officials and installed illegitimate pro-Russian proxies.”
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
On the ground. Fighting raged in Sievierodonetsk, the last city in the Luhansk region to remain outside Russian control since the war efforts shifted to the east of the country. Though most of the city’s civilian population has fled in the past few weeks, 12,000 people, many of them elderly, are said to be trapped there in appalling conditions.
Russian oil embargo. European Union members finally reached an agreement on a Russian oil embargo and new sanctions against Russia. The long-delayed deal effectively exempts Hungary, which had opposed the embargo, from the costly step the rest of the bloc is taking to punish Russia.
Grain exports. Following the agreement, European leaders are now focusing on ways to prop up Ukraine’s economy, including unblocking huge amounts of grain stuck at Ukrainian ports that are under Russian blockade. Russia’s foreign minister is expected to visit Turkey next week to discuss the possible release of the grain.
Second war crime trial. A Ukrainian court sentenced two Russian soldiers to 11 and a half years in prison for shelling a town in the country’s northeast during the war. It was the second guilty verdict handed down by Ukrainian courts for war crimes since the invasion began.
On Tuesday, a Ukrainian court concluded the second war crimes trial against captured Russian soldiers, finding two of them guilty of shelling a civilian area, and sentencing them to 11 and a half years in prison. A third trial — which is the first to involve accusations of a sex crime — is expected to begin soon.
The soldiers convicted on Tuesday were accused of shelling Derhachi, a town near Kharkiv, in the northeast — an area where towns and cities are still bombarded by Russian forces, though the Ukrainians have pushed them back several miles. In Derhachi, houses are being destroyed on a regular basis and hundreds of people are still living in underground shelters.
Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Irina Venediktova, wrote on Facebook that a Russian soldier “will be tried for the murder of a civilian man and the sexual abuse of his wife.”
Ukraine is usually one of the world’s biggest exporters of food staples like corn, wheat and sunflower oil, but its output has plummeted as the war has interfered with sowing, harvesting, storing and, most debilitating of all, shipping. Even before the war, global food reserves were low and supply chains disrupted by the pandemic, and the United Nations has predicted that the loss of Ukrainian grain will lead to famine.
Ukraine says the Russian blockade has prevented 22 million tons of grain from leaving Ukraine, and there is limited capacity to shift that to export by trains and trucks. In addition, Ukrainian and international officials charge that Russian forces have targeted grain silos and railways used to transport food, stolen Ukrainian grain stores, and littered farms with explosives, both accidentally and intentionally.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Tuesday that his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Russian military officials would visit Turkey to explore a deal to allow grain ships to leave Ukrainian ports.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland; Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine; Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Dan Bilefsky from Montreal; Victoria Kim from Seoul; Safak Timur from Istanbul; and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.