Ukrainian governor calls for evacuation of 350,000 residents

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory by capturing an eastern Ukrainian province critical to his war aims, his troops have stepped up their offensive in the neighboring province Tuesday, prompting the governor to urge more than a quarter of a million residents to evacuate.

Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said it was necessary to get the remaining 350,000 people out of Donetsk province to save lives and allow the Ukrainian army to better defend the towns against the Russian advance.

“The fate of the whole country will be decided by the Donetsk region,” Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told reporters in Kramatrosk, the province’s administrative center and headquarters of the Ukrainian army’s regional headquarters.

“Once there are fewer people, we can focus more on our enemy and accomplish our main tasks,” Kyrylenko said.

Another Donetsk town in the path of Moscow’s offensive was shelled on Tuesday.

Mayor Vadim Lyakh said on Facebook that “heavy shelling” hit Sloviansk, which had a population of around 107,000 before Russia invaded Ukraine more than four months ago. The mayor, who had urged residents hours earlier to evacuate, advised them to take shelter in shelters.

At least one person was killed and seven others injured on Tuesday, Lyakh said. He said the city’s central market and several neighborhoods were attacked, adding that authorities were assessing the extent of the damage.

The barrage targeting Sloviansk indicated that Russian forces were positioned to advance further into Ukraine’s Donbass region, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial area where the country’s most experienced soldiers are concentrated.

Sloviansk has already come under rocket and artillery fire during Russia’s war in Ukraine, but shelling has intensified in recent days after Moscow took the last major city in neighboring Luhansk province, Lyakh said.

“It’s important to evacuate as many people as possible,” he warned on Tuesday morning, adding that the shelling had damaged 40 houses on Monday.

The Ukrainian army on Sunday withdrew its troops from the town of Lysychansk to avoid being surrounded. Russia’s defense minister and Putin said the city’s subsequent capture gave Moscow control of all of Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up Donbass.

The Ukrainian president’s office said the Ukrainian army was still defending a small part of Lugansk and trying to gain time to establish fortified positions nearby.

The question now is whether Russia can muster enough forces to complete its capture of Donbass by also taking the province of Donetsk. Putin acknowledged on Monday that the Russian troops who fought in Lugansk should “take a rest and build up their fighting capacity”.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine will continue until all the goals set by Putin are achieved. However, Shoigu said that Moscow’s “main priorities” at the moment were “to preserve the life and health” of the troops, as well as “to exclude the threat to the safety of civilians”.

When Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, his stated goals were to defend the people of Donbass against alleged aggression from Kyiv, as well as the “demilitarization” and “denazifaction” of Ukraine.

Pro-Russian separatists fought Ukrainian forces and controlled much of Donbass for eight years. Ahead of this year’s invasion, Putin recognized the independence of the region’s two self-declared breakaway republics. He also sought to portray the tactics of Ukrainian forces and the government as akin to those of Nazi Germany, claims for which no evidence has emerged.

Ukraine’s army general staff said Russian forces also shelled several towns and villages in Donetsk around Sloviansk over the past day, but were pushed back as they tried to advance towards a town located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city. South of the city, Russian forces were attempting to push towards two other towns and shelling areas near Kramatorsk.

Meanwhile, Moscow-based officials in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region announced on Tuesday the formation of a new regional government, with a former Russian official at the helm.

Sergei Yeliseyev, the head of the new Moscow-backed government in Kherson, is a former deputy prime minister of Russia’s western enclave of Kaliningrad and also worked in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, according to media reports.

It was not immediately clear what would become of the “military-civic administration” that the Kremlin had installed earlier. Administration head Vladimir Saldo said in a Telegram statement that the new government was “not a temporary administration, not a military one, not some kind of interim administration, but a real governing body.”

“The fact that not only Kherson residents but also Russian officials are part of this government clearly shows the direction the Kherson region is taking in the future,” he said. “This direction is towards Russia.”

The Russian-based Kherson administration had previously announced its intention to integrate the region into Russia, either by referendum or other means.

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials.

In other developments:

— The 30 NATO allies have signed the accession protocols of Sweden and Finland, sending the two countries’ offers of membership to the alliance capitals for legislative approval. This decision further increases Russia’s strategic isolation. Alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed the signing as “truly a historic moment for Finland, Sweden and NATO”.

— The war in Ukraine has diverted millions of dollars from countries facing other crises. Somalia, which suffers from a food shortage largely due to war, is perhaps the most vulnerable. Its aid funding is less than half of last year’s level, while the overwhelming majority of Western donors have sent more than $1.7 billion to respond to war in Europe. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Congo and the Palestinian territories are also affected.

— Spain has increased its military spending in an attempt to meet its commitment to NATO to devote 2% of its gross domestic product to defence. Spain’s cabinet approved a one-time Ministry of Defense expenditure of nearly one billion euros ($1 billion) which the government said was needed to pay for unforeseen expenses related to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Spain sent military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and deployed more troops and aircraft to NATO missions in Eastern Europe.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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