Russia has continued to deploy forces and equipment in its all-out offensive in eastern Ukraine, where it seeks to encircle Ukrainian troops in two towns, as kyiv warned the country faces an existential battle which could determine his fate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in Donbass was “extremely difficult” as Russia steps up its assault.
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“All the power of the Russian army, which still remains in them, was thrown into the attack”, Zelensky said in his evening speech of May 24.
Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle the easternmost sector of Ukraine’s Donbass pocket, concentrating on the twin towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, located on the eastern and western banks of the Siverskiy Donets River.
“The enemy has concentrated its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Severodonetsk,” said Serhiy Hayday, governor of Luhansk province, where the two towns are located. Hayday said on May 25 that six civilians had been killed by Russian shelling in Severodonetsk the previous night.
Ukraine’s military said it repelled nine Russian attacks on May 24 in Donbass, where Moscow troops killed at least 14 civilians, using planes, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said on May 24 that battles in eastern Ukraine could determine its future.
“Now we are observing the most active phase of the large-scale aggression that Russia has deployed against our country,” Motuzyanyk said in a televised briefing. “The situation on the [eastern] front is extremely difficult, because the fate of this country may be being decided [there] right now.”
Workers digging through the rubble of a building in Mariupol, the port city on the Sea of Azov that has been relentlessly besieged and shelled for months by Russian forces, have found 200 decomposing bodies in the basement, announced the Ukrainian authorities on May 24.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor, did not say when they were discovered, but the number of casualties made them one of the deadliest known attacks of the war.
Meanwhile, British intelligence has warned that the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s key port of Odessa has caused grain supply shortages that cannot be met by land exports.
WATCH: Veronika from Ukraine’s Donetsk region lost her family in an attack on the skyscraper where she lived. Hit by shrapnel, she remained in a coma. Kira from Kharkiv was hit by shelling while walking in a park. Her friend was killed.
The British Ministry of Defense evaluated in its daily bulletin on May 25, as long as the threat of the Russian naval blockade prevents access of commercial ships to Ukrainian ports, “the resulting supply shortages will further increase the price of many basic products”.
On May 24, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called for talks with Moscow on unblocking wheat exports trapped in Ukraine following the Russian maritime blockade.
“Russian warships in the Black Sea are blocking Ukrainian vessels full of wheat and sunflower seeds,” von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.
Russia is using the food supply as a weapon with global repercussions, just as it does in the energy sector, von der Leyen said.
The war and Western sanctions against Russia have caused the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer and energy to skyrocket.
Many countries, including some of the world’s poorest, rely on Russia and Ukraine, which together account for almost a third of the world’s wheat supply, for more than half of their wheat imports.
Zelenskiy said it will take time and “a lot of extraordinary effort” for the Ukrainians to break Russia’s advantage in equipment and weapons, as he again called on Western countries to provide more heavy weapons.
Providing rocket-propelled grenades, tanks, anti-ships and other weapons to Ukraine is the best investment to maintain stability in the world and prevent many “serious crises” that he says Russia is planning still.
Amid the fighting, two senior Russian officials appeared to acknowledge that Moscow’s advance had been slower than expected, despite swearing the offensive would achieve its objectives.
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, said the Russian government “is not chasing deadlines”. And Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of a Russian-led security alliance of former Soviet states that Moscow was deliberately slowing its offensive to allow residents of encircled towns to evacuate.
Russian officials also announced that Moscow forces have completed clearing the waters off Mariupol and that a safe corridor will open on May 25 for the exit of as many as 70 foreign ships from the southern coast of the Ukraine.