Russia and Ukraine pounded each other’s forces in heavy fighting in the eastern region of Donetsk on Tuesday as Kyiv’s allies met in Paris to provide urgent aid to help Ukrainians survive freezing winter temperatures.
Moscow is battling to take full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, two of four territories the Kremlin claims to have annexed in votes rejected by most countries as illegal.
Moscow is also attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with waves of missile and drone strikes, at times cutting off electricity for millions of civilians enduring Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War Two.
“They’re shelling really hard, there’s shelling, especially at night," Valentyna, 70, told Reuters as she fled the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, which Moscow seeks to capture but which is now largely in ruins because of incessant bombardment.
Valentyna, who declined to give her surname, spoke in a van driving to the relative safety of Ukrainian-controlled Pokrovsk.
“The house would shake and every minute, second you expect it could crumble around you and that’d be it. I couldn’t even sleep in the last week, so I decided to leave," she added.
Denis Pushilin, Russian-installed administrator of the portion controlled by Moscow, told Russian media that just over half of the Donetsk People’s Republic had been “liberated". The self-styled republic is a breakaway Russian-backed entity that has been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the report.
Fierce fighting in the region in recent weeks has left unclear which parts of Donetsk are under Russian and Ukrainian control.
Three civilians were killed in the Donetsk region over the past 24 hours, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on his Telegram channel, while in the southern Kherson region, regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych reported three people were killed and 15 wounded in Russian artillery attacks.
Russian troops shelled the part of the Kherson region under Ukrainian control 57 times, he said.
Russia’s sustained shelling of the frontline in Donetsk has destroyed the city of Bakhmut and heavily damaged the city of Avdiivka, which lies in the region’s centre, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday.
On Monday, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said Russia kept concentrating its efforts to advance and capture both cities.
Reuters could not independently verify the latest battlefield accounts.
Belarus, a close ally of Russia, launched a snap inspection of its troops’ combat readiness after an order from President Alexander Lukashenko, the defence ministry said on Tuesday.
It was the latest in a flurry of military actions that have raised fears Russia may mount an attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory in coming months.
In Paris meanwhile about 70 countries and institutions discussed what can be offered between now and March to maintain Ukraine’s water, food, energy, health and transport. Zelenskiy said Ukraine needed at least 800 million euros ($840 million) in urgent winter energy.
“It’s a lot, but the price is less than the cost of blackout," Zelenskiy told the meeting via video link.
A second meeting between France, Ukraine and some 500 companies will see what can be invested and done in the short to long term.
A French diplomat told reporters in a briefing ahead of the meeting the immediate priority was to ensure the electricity network did not collapse and that water pipes did not freeze.
As he arrived at the meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron said there was an agreement on removing heavy weapons from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and that talks were under way on the way to do this.
The Group of Seven on Monday promised to “meet Ukraine’s urgent requirements" after Zelenskiy appealed for modern tanks, artillery and long-range weapons. Zelenskiy also urged G7 leaders at a virtual meeting to support his idea of convening a special Global Peace Summit.
Russia on Tuesday dismissed a peace proposal from Zelenskiy that would involve a pullout of Russian troops and demanded Kyiv accept new territorial “realities" which included Russia’s addition of four Ukrainian regions as its “new subjects".
“Without taking these new realities into account, no kind of progress is possible," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding there could be “no question" of Russia starting to withdraw troops by the end of the year.
U.S. President Joe Biden told Zelenskiy on Sunday that Washington’s priority was to boost Ukraine’s air defences. The United States also shipped the first batch of power equipment to Ukraine under an aid package agreed last month.
Moscow denies deliberately attacking civilians, but the war has displaced millions and killed thousands of non-combatants.
There are no peace talks under way to end the conflict, which Moscow describes as a “special military operation" against security threats posed by its neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies call it an unprovoked, imperialist land grab.
Britain on Tuesday sanctioned 12 Russian military commanders implicated in missile strikes on Ukrainian cities as well as Iranian businessmen involved in the production and supply of military drones used in the attacks.
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