Relentless shelling has turned Ukraine‘s Donbas region into a “hell,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said, as the first post-invasion trial of a Russian soldier for war crimes neared its climax on Friday.
Zelensky’s government received a new boost when the US Congress approved a $40 billion aid package, including funds to upgrade Ukraine‘s fleet of armored vehicles and air defense system.
Ukraine urgently needs a greater capacity to defend against the kind of onslaught Russia is waging in the eastern Donbas region, 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 late-night video address Thursday night. “T. is a hell, and that is not an exaggeration.”
In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, 12 people were killed and 40 others wounded by Russian shelling, the regional governor said.
Zelensky described the bombing of Severodonetsk as “brutal and absolutely useless”, as residents cowering in the cellars described an ordeal of endless terror.
The city is part of the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Lugansk, the smaller of the two regions that make up the Donbass war zone.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces’ campaign in Lugansk was “almost finished.”
Indiscriminate bombing and cold-blooded attacks on civilians feature prominently on a growing charge sheet of alleged war crimes committed by Russians in Ukraine.
‘I’m really sorry’ Vadim Shishimarin, the first Russian soldier to stand trial in kyiv, admitted killing an unarmed civilian and told the court on Friday he was “really 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 after the invasion, allegedly to prevent the civilian from revealing his unit’s location after he had stolen a car.
In Donetsk, pro-Kremlin authorities are also 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 hopes to exchange Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners.
A total of 1,908 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered at the steelworks this week, according to Moscow, marking the effective end of what kyiv called a “heroic” resistance.
Russia released a video that appears to show exhausted Ukrainian soldiers leaving the sprawling plant, after a siege forced defenders and civilians to huddle in tunnels, enduring shortages of food, water and medicine.
“Our expectation is … that all prisoners of war 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 portrayed the Ukraine war as part of a larger US-led fight for democracy against authoritarianism.
Biden offered “full, full, full support” to Finland and Sweden in their bid to join NATO, while giving their leaders a red-carpet welcome at the White House on Thursday.
“We’re not idiots,” but NATO‘s 30 existing members must agree on any new entry, and Turkey has condemned alleged tolerance of Kurdish militants by historically non-aligned Nordic neighbors.
The United States and the NATO chief expressed confidence in overcoming Turkish objections. And in Finland, a brewery has already brewed a special NATO beer.
It tastes like “security, with a touch of freedom,” said brewer Petteri Vanttinen.
Shoigu said the Kremlin would respond to any NATO expansion by creating more military bases in western Russia.
In addition to redrawing Europe’s security map, the conflict has shaken the world economy, especially in the energy and food markets.
Russia and Ukraine produce 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply, and the war has sent food prices soaring. Russia is also a major exporter of fertilizers.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the war could trigger a multi-year “famine” in poorer parts of the world.
Washington asked Russia to allow exports of Ukrainian grains held in Black Sea ports.
But former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev blamed the West.
“On the one hand they are imposing senseless sanctions on us, on the other hand they are demanding food supplies,” he said. “Things don’t work like that, we’re not idiots.”