Ukraine slams Russian attacks on Donbas ‘hell’
Incessant bombardment has turned Ukraine’s Donbas region into “hell”, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, as the first post-invasion trial of a Russian soldier for war crimes neared its closely watched climax Friday.
Zelensky’s government received a fresh boost as the US Congress approved a $40 billion aid package, including funds to enhance Ukraine’s armoured vehicle fleet and air defence system.
Ukraine sorely needs enhanced capability to fend off the kind of onslaught Russia is waging in the eastern region of Donbas, a Russian-speaking area that has been partially controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.
“In Donbas, the occupiers are trying to increase pressure,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address late Thursday. “There’s hell, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, 12 people were killed and another 40 wounded by Russian shelling, the regional governor said.
Zelensky described the bombardment of Severodonetsk as “brutal and absolutely pointless”, as residents cowering in basements described an unending ordeal of terror.
The city forms part of the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Lugansk, the smaller of two regions comprising the Donbas war zone.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces’ campaign in Lugansk was “nearing completion”.
Indiscriminate bombardment and cold-blooded targeting of civilians feature heavily in a growing charge-sheet of alleged war crimes conducted by Russians in Ukraine.
Vadim Shishimarin, the first Russian soldier to face trial in Kyiv, has admitted to killing an unarmed civilian and told the court on Friday that he was “truly sorry”.
But Shishimarin’s lawyer Viktor Ovsyannikov said in closing arguments that the 21-year-old sergeant was “not guilty” of premeditated murder and war crimes.
“I ask you to acquit my client,” Ovsyannikov told the judges, who are expected to deliver their verdict on Monday. Shishimarin faces a possible life sentence.
The Russian shot dead Oleksandr Shelipov, 62, four days into the invasion, purportedly to avoid the civilian giving away his unit’s position after they had stolen a car.
In Donetsk, the pro-Kremlin authorities are in turn threatening to put on trial some of the Ukrainian soldiers who held out for weeks in dire conditions at the Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol.
Ukraine is hoping instead to exchange the Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners.
A total of 1,908 Ukrainian troops have surrendered this week at the steelworks, according to Moscow, signalling the effective end of what Kyiv had called a “heroic” resistance.
Russia released a video appearing to show exhausted Ukrainian soldiers trudging out of the sprawling plant, after a siege forced the defenders and civilians to huddle in tunnels, enduring shortages of food, water and medicine.
“Our expectation is… that all prisoners of war will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and the law of war,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in Washington.
US President Joe Biden has cast the Ukraine war as part of a great US-led struggle of democracy against authoritarianism.
Biden offered “full, total, complete backing” to Finland and Sweden in their bid to join NATO, as he gave their leaders a red-carpet welcome at the White House on Thursday.
‘We’re not idiots’
But all 30 existing NATO members need to agree on any new entrants, and Turkey has condemned the historically non-aligned Nordic neighbours’ alleged toleration of Kurdish militants.
The United States and NATO’s chief expressed confidence of overcoming Turkish objections. And in Finland, one brewery has already crafted a special NATO beer.
It tastes of “security, with a hint of freedom”, brewer Petteri Vanttinen said.
Shoigu said the Kremlin would respond to any NATO expansion by creating more military bases in western Russia.
As well as redrawing the security map of Europe, the conflict has sent shockwaves through the global economy, especially in energy and food markets.
Russia and Ukraine produce 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply and the war has sent food prices surging. Russia is also a major exporter of fertiliser.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the war could trigger a years-long “famine” in poorer parts of the world.
Washington called on Russia to allow exports of Ukrainian grain held up at Black Sea ports.
But Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev blamed the West.
“On the one hand, insane sanctions are being imposed against us, on the other hand, they are demanding food supplies,” he said. “Things don’t work like that, we’re not idiots.”