Ukraine is pleading for more help from the West, seeking faster deliveries of weapons to hold off better-armed Russian forces and for humanitarian support to combat deadly diseases.
In Sievierodonetsk, the small city that has become the focus of Russia’s advance in eastern Ukraine and one of the bloodiest flashpoints in a war well into its fourth month, further heavy fighting was reported.
To the south, the mayor of Mariupol – reduced to ruins by a Russian siege – said sanitation systems were broken and corpses were rotting in the streets.
“There is an outbreak of dysentery and cholera … The war which took over 20,000 residents … unfortunately, with these infection outbreaks, will claim thousands more Mariupolites,” he told national television.
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He called on the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to work on establishing a humanitarian corridor to allow remaining residents to leave the city, which is now under Russian control.
In a snapshot of the war’s wider impact, the UN’s food agency said reduced exports of wheat and other commodities from Ukraine and Russia could inflict chronic hunger on up to 19 million more people globally over the next year.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for Ukraine to be incorporated as a part of the West, with binding guarantees for its protection.
Asking the EU to accept Ukraine as a membership candidate, he told a conference in Copenhagen by videolink: “The European Union can take a historic step that will prove that words about the people of Ukraine belonging to the European family are not just words.”
The war in the east, where Russia is focusing its attentions, is now primarily an artillery battle in which Kyiv is severely outgunned, Ukrainian officials say.
“This is an artillery war now,” Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
“Everything now depends on what (the West) gives us. Ukraine has one artillery piece to 10 to 15 Russian artillery pieces.”
Russia is hoping to capture the full territory of eastern Luhansk province, which it demands Ukraine cede to separatists along with neighbouring Donetsk – an area known as the Donbas where it has backed a revolt by separatist proxies since 2014.
To that end, the Kremlin has concentrated its forces into a battle for Sievierodonetsk.
Ukrainian troops have largely pulled out of the city’s residential areas but have not yielded their foothold on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River.
Russian forces are also pushing from the north and south to try to encircle the Ukrainians, but so far have made limited progress.
Both sides say they have inflicted mass casualties. Battlefield reports could not immediately be verified.
In his nightly address, Zelenskiy said Russia was trying to “break every town in the Donbas”.
“Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, Bakhmut, Sloviansk, many, many others … All these ruins were once happy towns,” he said.
Britain on Friday condemned Russian proxy authorities in Donbas for what it called an “egregious breach” of the Geneva Convention in sentencing to death two British nationals captured in the region while fighting for Ukraine.
A UN official said trials conducted under such circumstances were tantamount to war crimes, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced it as a “sham trial against prisoners of war”.
Ukraine said a speech delivered on Thursday by Russian President Vladimir Putin – who drew a parallel between what he portrayed as a new quest to win back Russian lands and the historic achievements of Tsar Peter the Great – proved Moscow’s aim was conquest.
“Putin’s confession of land seizures and comparing himself with Peter the Great prove there was no ‘conflict’, only the country’s bloody seizure under contrived pretexts of people’s genocide,” tweeted Zelenskiy aide Mykhailo Podolyak.
NATO member Estonia summoned Russia’s ambassador there to condemn Putin’s “completely unacceptable” praise for the 18th century Russian ruler who captured a city, Narva, that is now Estonian.