By JOHN LEICESTER and DAVID KEYTON
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian military extended its grip Thursday on territory in eastern Ukraine, capturing two villages and vying for control of a key highway as it seeks to cut supply lines and encircle frontline Ukrainian forces, British and Ukrainian military officials said.
Ukrainian forces withdrew from some areas near the city of Lysychansk to avoid being surrounded as Russians sent in reinforcements and concentrated their firepower in the area, Britain’s Defense Ministry said. The city is located in Luhansk province, a major battlefield in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces took control of the villages of Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka, and were trying to capture Syrotyne, a settlement outside the province’s urban administrative center, Sievierodonetsk.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press that the Russians were “burning everything out” in their offensive to encircle Ukraine’s fighters.
“The Russians are advancing without trying to spare the ammunition or troops, and they aren’t running out of either,” Haidai said. “They have an edge in heavy artillery and the number of troops.”
“Part of the Luhansk region still remains under Ukrainian control, defying the Russians and causing their fury and desire to burn it to the ground,” he added.
For weeks, Russian forces have pummeled Sievierodonetsk with artillery and air raids, and fought the Ukrainian army house-to-house. Ukrainian forces remain holed up with about 500 civilians at the Azot chemical plant, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
Haidai said the Ukrainian soldiers warded off the city’s seizure from the plant’s sprawling underground structures, but he noted that “the shelling has intensified, and even concrete shelters can’t withstand the bombardment.” The Russians were using their entire arsenal — heavy artillery, tanks and aircraft — he said.
Lysychansk, located on a steep river bank facing Sievierodonetsk, also faces a relentless Russian artillery barrage. At least one civilian died and three others were wounded in 24 hours as the Russians concentrated more than 100 multiple rocket launchers to “pummel entire blocks,” the governor said.
The British Defense Ministry said Russian forces had likely advanced more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) toward the southern approaches of Lysychansk since Sunday.
“Some Ukrainian units have withdrawn, probably to avoid being encircled,” the statement said. “Russia’s improved performance in this sector is likely a result of recent unit reinforcement and heavy concentration of fire.”
Ukraine’s military said the Russians were also moving to overtake the hills overlooking a highway linking Lysychansk with Bakhmut, to the southwest, in an attempt to cut the supply lines of Ukrainian forces.
Haidai said the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway wasn’t used because of heavy Russian shelling. Ukrainian forces are receiving supplies via an alternative route.
Following a botched attempt to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in the early stage of the invasion on Feb. 24, Russian forces shifted focus to the Donbas region, where the Ukrainian forces have fought Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Russian military controls about 95% of Luhansk province and about half of neighboring Donetsk province, the two areas that make up the Donbas.
Kyiv has urged its Western allies to deliver more heavy weapons to counter the Russian edge in firepower. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Thursday announced the arrival of multiple-launch rocket systems supplied by the U.S. and enthusiastically thanked his American counterpart “for these powerful tools!”
“Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them,” Reznikov tweeted.
Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, said the HIMAR rocket launchers would help the Ukrainian military resist the Russian onslaught and potentially launch a counter-offensive in the south.
He noted that HIMARS has a longer range, precision and rate of fire compared to similar Soviet-designed systems that Russia and Ukraine have used during the four-month war.
“Russia’s main forces are now concentrated in Donbas and it can’t redeploy them as long as the heavy fighting is going on,” Sunhurovsky said.
A Ukrainian politician and TV personality says an online fundraising pitch aimed at helping Ukraine buy three offensive drones has raised $10.4 million in 24 hours.
Serhiy Prytula credited “amazing” support among Ukrainians after his charitable foundation launched the appeal for $15 million a day earlier for the purchase of the Bayraktar drones like those that Ukrainian forces have already used to defend against Russian invaders.
He tweeted: “4,6m $ to go. The People’s Bayraktar project is already a nationwide crowdfunding. Let’s turn it into international!”
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels appeared on track to make Ukraine a candidate for membership in the 27-nation bloc. The country’s actual admission to the EU will likely take years, though, both because of the war and the reforms the Ukrainian government is expected to make to conform with European standards.
It’s unlikely that accession talks could start before next year, and joining the EU would not confer any security guarantees like membership in NATO would. Ukraine has also sought to join the Western military alliance, which Putin cited as a rationale for invading the neighboring country.
Several EU diplomats, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity before an EU leaders’ summit starting Thursday, said Ukraine would receive the unanimous approval required to become a candidate and launch negotiations on future membership.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Thursday that her country offered its expertise to help protect Ukraine’s ports and the safe passage of vessels for the export of Ukrainian grain.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. Russia’s invasion and blockade of Ukraine’s ports have halted much of that flow and left millions of tons of grain stuck in silos, endangering food supplies to many developing countries, especially in Africa.
“It’s urgent that action is taken within the next month ahead of the new harvest, and we’re determined to work with our allies to deliver this,” Truss said at news conference with her Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, during a visit to Ankara to discuss ways to end the blockade.
Turkey wants to gather the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine to organize a U.N. plan that would allow the safe shipment of agricultural products from Ukrainian ports. Cavusoglu said a possible deal might set up a “safe zone” just outside of Ukraine’s territorial waters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday that Russia has destroyed more than 2,000 schools and other educational institutions during the war.
In a video address to students and faculty at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Zelenskyy said that in areas where Russian troops made quick advances, “forces were shooting people on the streets, they are torturing people, they are raping minors — boys and girls.”
Zelenskyy also voiced disappointment that Israel hadn’t joined Western-led sanctions against Russia or provided Ukraine with military aid to give its forces a boost in the war.
Israel relies on good ties with Russia for security coordination in Syria, where Russia has troops and where Israel carries out frequent strikes against enemy targets. It has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Lviv. Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine