Soledar (Ukraine) (AFP) -
Ukraine looked close to losing the key eastern city of Severodonetsk to Russian forces but was boosted Wednesday by the US decision to send more advanced rocket systems to help with its defence.
'The Russians control 70 percent of Severodonetsk,' Lugansk region governor Sergiy Gaiday announced on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing to prepared positions.
'If in two or three days, the Russians take control of Severodonetsk, they will install artillery and mortars and will bombard more intensely Lysychansk,' the city across the river, which Gaiday said remained held by Kyiv.
One of the industrial hubs on Russia's path to taking the eastern Lugansk region, Severodonetsk has become a target of massive Russian firepower since the failed attempt to capture Kyiv.
But in a boost for the outgunned Ukrainian military, President Joe Biden confirmed that more US weaponry was on the way to allow them to 'more precisely strike key targets' in Ukraine.
The new weapon is the Himars multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS: a mobile unit that can simultaneously launch multiple precision-guided missiles.
They are the centrepiece of a $700 million package being unveiled Wednesday that includes air-surveillance radar, more Javelin short-range anti-tank rockets, artillery ammunition, helicopters, vehicles and spare parts, a US official said.
With a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometres), they will allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind Russian lines.
- 'Fuel to the fire' -
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of 'adding fuel to the fire', saying 'such supplies' did not encourage Kyiv to resume peace talks.
In an article in the New York Times, Biden insisted: 'We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.'
He wrote: 'We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia. As much as I disagree with Mr. (President Vladimir) Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow.
'So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.'
While some analysts have suggested the Himars could be a 'game-changer', others caution they should not be expected to suddenly turn the tables, not least because Ukrainian troops need time to learn how to use them effectively.
What they may do is improve morale, according to one Ukrainian soldier getting pummelled on the front line.
'If you know you have a heavy weapon behind you, everyone's spirits rise,' one fighter who uses the nom de guerre Luzhniy told AFP before the announcement.
- 'Just crazy' -
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck a tank containing nitric acid at a chemical plant in Severodonetsk, prompting the local governor to warn people to stay indoors.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia's strikes in the area, 'including blind air bombing, are just crazy'.
West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, AFP journalists saw buildings destroyed by a rocket attack in which three people died and six others were hurt.
And on Wednesday, at least one person died and two others were injured in Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, AFP saw.
The European Union has also sent weapons and cash for Ukraine, while levelling unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow.
Leaders this week agreed a ban on most Russian oil imports but played down the prospects of shutting off Russian gas on which many member states are hugely dependent.
Russia has sought to get around sanctions by demanding payment for gas in rubles, cutting off countries that refuse. Denmark was set to become the latest target Wednesday, after the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.
Russia's Gazprom said Wednesday its gas exports to countries outside of the former Soviet Union had dropped by more than a quarter year-on-year between January and May.
Danes meanwhile were voting on whether to overturn the country's opt-out on the EU's common defence policy.
The referendum came just weeks after neighbouring Finland and Sweden abandoned decades of military non-alignment by applying to join NATO as a defence against Russian aggression.
Moscow said Wednesday it had no information on the death of a French journalist in Ukraine.
Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff, of French broadcaster BMFTV, was killed on Monday while covering the evacuation of civilians in the east of the country.
- A 'few thousand' war crimes -
On the eastern frontline in Donbas, Ukrainian towns were being subjected to near-constant shelling from Russian forces.
Ukraine's prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said authorities had identified a 'few thousand' cases of war crimes in the Donbas, including murder, torture and the forced displacement of children.
The key Zelensky aide, who met international counterparts in The Hague on Tuesday, said Kyiv was already set to prosecute 80 suspects for alleged war crimes on Ukrainian soil.
A Ukrainian court on Tuesday jailed two Russian soldiers for 11 and a half years for shelling two villages in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
Earlier this month, another was jailed for life for murdering a civilian, although he has appealed.
Russia's invasion of its pro-Western neighbour is also threatening a global food crisis, with Ukraine's huge grain harvest effectively taken off the world market.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi have all urged Putin to end Russia's blockade of the port of Odessa.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to the West and Kyiv to resolve the crisis, starting with the lifting of sanctions.
In Kyiv, meanwhile, Ukrainian football fans were set to watch their national side play its first official match since Russia's invasion, facing Scotland in a World Cup qualifier later Wednesday in Glasgow.
'I am hoping for victory,' 44-year-old army serviceman, Andriy Veres, told AFP.
'These days it is very important for the country, for all people, for all those who are fans and even for those who are not.'