As the war in Ukraine approaches its centenary, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday that Russian troops now control one-fifth of the country, a blunt acknowledgment of the slow but substantial gains Moscow has made in recent weeks.
Though battered, exhausted and repulsed from their initial attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital Kiev, Russian forces have used their superior artillery force to get closer to their objective of taking over the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, known collectively as the Donbas, where Kremlin-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Mr Zelensky said Russia had expanded its control over Ukrainian territory from an area roughly the size of the Netherlands before the invasion began to an area now larger than the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg combined. Seizing that strip of land could give Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin tremendous leverage in future talks to end the war, as well as a base of operations to launch further attacks into Ukraine.
Yet the momentum in the war can change quickly and unpredictably. While Russia has fired on targets in the east, Ukrainian forces have regained control of 20 small towns and villages in a counter-offensive in the south of the country, a regional official, Hennadiy Lahuta, said on national television.
There was fighting, said Mr. Zelensky, along an approximately 620-mile long, crescent-shaped front stretching from around the northeastern city of Kharkov to the suburbs of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, in the south.
“If you look at the whole front line, and it’s obviously not straight, this line is over a thousand miles,” said Mr. Zelensky in a video address to the Luxembourg Parliament. “Imagine! Constant fighting, stretching for more than a thousand kilometers along the front line.”
Amid intense battles and heavy casualties suffered by both the Russian and Ukrainian military, the arrival of more advanced and powerful weapons from Western countries could change the dynamics on the battlefield.
President Biden this week pledged to send advanced missile systems to Ukraine that can attack enemy positions nearly 80 miles away, and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised to deliver an advanced air defense system and a tracking radar that can locate Russian artillery.
For now, Moscow’s main military target is Sievierodonetsk, the last major city in the Luhansk region not in Russian hands. Russian troops shelled the area for weeks, reducing much of the city to depopulated rubble.
Russia controls about 70 percent of the city, although a regional official on Thursday said Ukrainian troops had pushed back Russian soldiers from several streets amid fierce urban fighting.
Russian forces have again launched attacks on the west of the city in an attempt to sever a Ukrainian supply line along a highway and byways that the Ukrainians have called the “road of life,” the Institute for the Study of War, a research group from Washington, said in a review.
“The Russian army is trying to break through the defenses of Ukraine’s armed forces,” Serhiy Haidai, the military governor of the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Luhansk region, wrote on Telegram.
“Now the main target for them is Sievierodonetsk, but they had no success overnight,” he wrote.
Military analysts consider the Ukrainian army’s decision to hold on to the city as a risky maneuver. It allows Ukrainians to inflict casualties on Russian troops, but could also inflict heavy casualties on Ukrainian soldiers, who have been besieged by relentless artillery fire.
Mr Zelensky said more than 14,000 Ukrainian civilians and military personnel have been killed in a conflict with Russia since 2014 when it took Crimea. More than 8 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced since the Russian invasion in February, according to the United Nations, and more than 6.5 million have fled to other countries as refugees.
In his overnight address to the nation on Thursday, Mr. Zelensky that more than 200,000 children had been deported since the invasion began. He called the deportations “one of Russia’s most heinous war crimes.”
“These are orphans from orphanages. Children with parents. Children separated from their families,” said Mr. Zelensky. “The Russian state is dispersing these people on its territory, especially settling our citizens in remote areas. The purpose of this criminal policy is not just to steal people, but to make deportees forget about Ukraine and not be able to return.”
Russia has denied that people are being forced to leave Ukraine and says the 1.5 million Ukrainians now in Russia have been evacuated for their own safety. On Thursday, Russia’s defense ministry said 18,886 people had been evacuated from eastern Ukraine, including 2,663 children, in the past 24 hours.
US officials have rejected Russia’s claims that it has offered Ukrainians humanitarian aid by moving them into the Kremlin-controlled area.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
To the ground. Ukraine said it was making progress in its counterattack in the south of the country and had regained ground outside the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. Ukrainian troops pushed Russian soldiers back in street fighting in the city of Sievierodonetsk, indicating that fighting continued there.
“As many eyewitness accounts have detailed, Russia is subjecting many of these civilians to brutal interrogations in so-called filtration camps,” Michael Carpenter, the United States ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said in a speech this week. month in Vienna.
He raised the issue again this week, saying: “Local residents trying to escape the Russian rule of fear and brutality risk kidnapping and forced deportation to Russia or Russian-occupied territories.”
Russia has not released any casualties for its troops since late March, when it said 1,351 soldiers had been killed. Mr Zelensky said Ukrainian officials believe at least 30,000 Russian troops have been killed. At the end of March, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops had been killed.
In an effort to isolate and punish Putin and his allies for launching the invasion, the Biden administration announced on Thursday a new set of sanctions aimed at freezing the shadowy network of international assets that Putin and members of his inner circle to hide their wealth.
Among the targets were four yachts associated with the Russian leader: the Shellest, the Nega, the Graceful and the Olympia. Mr Putin has used some of the ships on ocean excursions, including a trip to the Black Sea last year with Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the strong leader of Belarus who has supported the invasion of Ukraine, the government said.
The sanctions also targeted several prominent members of the Russian elite, including Sergei Roldugin, a cellist, conductor and artistic director of the St. Petersburg Music House, who was accused by the government of a close Putin associate, godfather to one of the daughters and custodian of Mr Putin. of the Russian president’s offshore wealth.
Mr Roldugin was added to the European Union’s sanctions list at the end of February, a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has been described as “Putin’s wallet”.
Following a slump in Russian oil exports, caused in part by Western sanctions, a group of oil-producing countries known as OPEC Plus agreed on Thursday to increase production levels in July and August. The deal followed months of White House lobbying, but analysts said it was too low to cut high gas prices, which posed a political challenge to Democrats in the midterm elections.
OPEC Plus, which includes Russia, Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers, announced plans to increase production just days after the European Union agreed to ban most imports of Russian oil, handing Moscow a heavy penalty. which also threatened to push European energy costs higher.
As EU negotiators finalized details of the oil embargo and other sanctions against Russia, they made an amendment at Hungary’s urging and removed Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, from the sanctions list . of providing spiritual cover for the invasion of Ukraine.
Reporting contributed by Matina Stevis-Gridneff† Julian E. Barnes† Michael Forsythe† Stanley Reed and Andrew E. Kramer†