Lysychansk (Ukraine) (AFP) -
Russian troops were approaching the strategic city of Severodonetsk on Friday in a relentless offensive to control Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, as the war triggered a historic schism in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's Moscow branch.
Pro-Russian separatists said they had captured the town of Lyman between Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, on the road leading to the key cities still under Kyiv's control.
Russian forces were also closing in on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the pro-separatist Lugansk province, which stand on the crucial route to Ukraine's eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.
The war caused the Moscow-backed branch of Ukraine's Orthodox Church to sever ties with Russia, in a historic move against the Russian spiritual authorities.
A church council focused on Russia's 'aggression' condemned the pro-war stance of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and declared 'full independence'. Ukraine has been under Moscow's spiritual leadership since at least the 17th century.
'Not only did he (Kirill) fail to condemn Russia's military aggression but he also failed to find words for the suffering Ukrainian people,' church spokesman Archbishop Kliment told AFP.
It is the second Orthodox schism in Ukraine in recent years, with part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church breaking away from Moscow in 2019 over Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Donbas.
- Severodonetsk 'surrounded' -
Three months after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, leaving thousands dead on both sides and forcing 6.6 million Ukrainians out of the country, Moscow is focusing on the east of Ukraine after failing in its initial ambition to capture Kyiv.
Observers believe Russia's gains have been far paltrier than President Vladimir Putin hoped, though Moscow has gained control over a handful of cities in southern Ukraine, such as Kherson and Mariupol.
'Russia is pressuring the Severodonetsk pocket although Ukraine retains control of multiple defended sectors, denying Russia full control of the Donbas,' the British defence ministry said in its latest briefing.
A Lugansk police official, cited by Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti, said Severodonetsk was 'now surrounded' and Ukrainian troops could no longer leave the city.
That was denied by senior city official Oleksandr Stryuk, though he acknowledged the situation was 'very difficult' with incessant bombing.
Lugansk's regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said in a Telegram video that at least five civilians had been killed in his region in the past 24 hours.
'People are willing to risk everything to get food and water,' said Oleksandr Kozyr, the head of the main aid distribution centre in Lysychansk.
'They are so psychologically depressed that they are no longer scared. All they care about is finding food,' he said.
Around 10 people were killed in Russian strikes on a military facility in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, far from the frontline, the regional head of the national guard said.
- Sanctions under discussion -
The Kremlin is now seeking to tighten its grip over the parts of Ukraine it occupies, including fast-tracking citizenship for residents of areas under Russian control.
Russian authorities in Mariupol, which was taken over this month after a devastating siege that left thousands dead and reduced the city to rubble, cancelled school holidays to prepare students to switch to a Russian curriculum, according to Kyiv.
There has been speculation that Russia could seek to annex areas of eastern and southern Ukraine it now controls, possibly in referendums during Russian regional elections held nationwide in September.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak with EU leaders at an emergency summit Monday as they try to agree on oil sanctions against Russia, which are being held up by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close relations with Putin.
Zelensky said in a virtual address to a think tank in Indonesia, which is hosting this year's G20 summit, that 'rather than continue trading with (Russia), we need to act until they stop their policy of aggression'.
- 'Fear of escalation' -
There have also been tensions between Kyiv and some Western nations, in particular Germany, over a perceived reluctance to supply more weapons to Ukraine lest the conflict intensify further.
Ukraine has also bristled at suggestions that Putin should be offered an 'off-ramp' to save face in a compromise deal that would see Kyiv concede some territory.
'Some partners avoid giving the necessary weapons because of fear of the escalation. Escalation, really?' Zelensky's adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak wrote on Twitter, saying it was 'time to respond' by giving Kyiv multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he feared Putin was 'continuing to chew through ground in Donbas' and that further military support for Kyiv was 'vital'.
- Food supply concerns -
Concerns are also growing over global food shortages due to the conflict, exacerbating problems for the world's poor at a time of rising energy prices.
Russia and Ukraine alone produce 30 percent of the global wheat supply, with grain-carrying vessels unable to leave ports in Ukraine.
But Putin rejected claims that Russia was blocking Ukraine's grain exports as 'groundless' in a telephone call Friday with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the Kremlin said.