Fighting rages in eastern Ukraine as NATO pushes expansion

Fighting rages in eastern Ukraine as NATO pushes expansion

President Putin has ordered his troops to carry on the assault in the Donbas
President Putin has ordered his troops to carry on the assault in the Donbas

SLOVIANSK (UKRAINE) - Fighting raged Tuesday in and around Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as Russian troops tried to build on recent battlefield gains, while NATO pressed ahead with Finland and Sweden's historic membership bids.

With the war now well into its fifth month, Kyiv's allies committed Tuesday to support Ukraine through what is expected to be a long and expensive recovery, and agreed on the need for broad reforms to boost transparency and battle corruption.

The talks in Switzerland heard that the rebuilding of war-shattered Ukraine is estimated to cost at least $750 billion.

But on the battlefield the conflict continued to wreak devastation, with Ukraine's presidency reporting Russian shelling and missile strikes in several regions overnight.

In Moscow, the defence ministry reported that over the past 24 hours, Russian forces have targeted the city of Kharkiv with "high-precision" weapons killing up to 150 Ukrainian servicemen.

The attack followed shelling in Donetsk, which Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered his troops to continue assaulting as they bid to take total control of the Donbas.

In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced the process to ratify Sweden and Finland as the newest members of the military alliance had formally launched.

"With 32 nations around the table, we will be even stronger and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades," he said in a joint press statement with the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers.

Sweden and Finland both announced their intention to drop decades of military non-alignment status and become part of NATO in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

- 'Fighting continues' -

After abandoning its initial war aim of capturing Kyiv following tough Ukrainian resistance, Russia has focused its efforts on securing control of the Donetsk and Lugansk areas which make up the Donbas region.

Ukraine said its forces were still defending "a small part" of Lugansk province -- the northeastern portion of the Donbas -- despite Moscow claiming that its troops were now in full control there.

Russia on Sunday captured the strategic city of Lysychansk, near the border between Lugansk and Donetsk, after the Ukrainian army said it had retreated to save lives among outnumbered and outgunned forces.

Lysychansk's fall -- one week after the army also retreated from the neighbouring city of Severodonetsk -- frees up Russian forces to advance on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Donetsk.

"Fighting continues on the administrative borders of the region," the Ukrainian presidency said Tuesday.

In a sign Moscow was trying to consolidate supply lines for the next push, Ukraine's armed forces said Russian forces in Lugansk were "taking measures" to restore transport infrastructure behind the fighting lines.

In Sloviansk, about 75 kilometres (45 miles) west of Lysychansk in Donetsk, the situation was calm mid-morning Tuesday, while artillery fire could heard outside the city, AFP reporters on the ground noted.

Further east, Russian forces were closing in on the small city of Siversk -- the first on the road from Lugansk -- after days of shelling.

Two Ukrainian Red Cross minibuses were headed there to evacuate willing civilians, according to AFP reporters.

- 'Accountable' -

To the southwest in the Moscow-occupied Kherson region, Russia's troops were deploying helicopters and various artillery to try to stem Ukrainian counter-attacks.

"Ukrainian aviation and missile and artillery units continue to strike enemy depots and invaders' concentrations, in particular in the Kherson region," Ukraine's armed forces added.

The intensifying battles in southern Ukraine come as Kremlin-installed authorities in Kherson announced that an official from Russia's powerful FSB security services had taken over control of the government there.

Kherson city, which lies close to Moscow-annexed Crimea, was the first major city to fall to Russian forces in February.

Moscow has since launched a campaign of so-called Russification, trying to introduce the ruble, giving out Russian passports and opening a first Russian bank at the end of June.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday reiterated calls for an increased supply of weapons from the West so Kyiv can keep up the resistance and its counter-offensives to regain lost territories.

At the meeting of Ukraine's allies in Lugano he also urged the democratic world to unite in rebuilding his country.

Leaders from dozens of countries, international organisations and businesses signed off Tuesday on a declaration spelling out the principles and priorities of the reconstruction effort.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told the recovery conference the estimated $750 billion recovery bill should in part be funded by the confiscated assets of Russia and Russian oligarchs.

"The Russian authorities unleashed this bloody war. They caused this massive destruction, and they should be held accountable for it," he said.

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