By Pavel Polityuk and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) – Russian forces fought their way into the centre of Ukraine’s industrial city of Sievierodonetsk on Wednesday, edging closer to claiming a big prize in their offensive in the eastern Donbas region.
But in a boost for Ukraine, locked in a grinding struggle against Russia’s invading army, the United States announced a new $700 million weapons package for Kyiv which will include advanced rocket systems capable of hitting targets up to 80 km (50 miles) away.
Moscow accused the United States of adding “fuel to the fire”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the supply of the rocket launchers raised the risk of a “third country” being dragged into the conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ukraine promised it will not use the systems to hit targets inside Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden hopes extending Ukraine’s artillery reach will help push Moscow to negotiate an end to the war, now in its fourth month.
After days of heavy fighting around Sievierodonetsk, much of which has been laid to waste by Russian bombardments, Russian troops were inching forward through the city streets. Ukraine says about 70% of the city is under Russian control.
“The enemy has entered the centre of Sievierodonetsk and is trying to take up positions,” Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said at a briefing.
If Russia captures the city and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, it will hold all of Luhansk, one of two provinces in the Donbas that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Capturing Luhansk in its entirety would fulfill one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main aims and solidify a shift in battlefield momentum after his forces were pushed back from the capital Kyiv and from northern Ukraine.
In the bombed-out town of Rubizhne, a quarter hour’s drive northwest of Sievierodonetsk, residents filled up jugs with water at a makeshift aid station.
Destroyed military vehicles littered streets lined with heavily damaged residential buildings. Children sat silently in a bomb shelter. Outside, black smoke rose above a red-domed Orthodox church.
Luhansk’s regional governor, Serhiy Gaidai, told Reuters in an interview that civilians were sheltering from Russian attacks under a Sievierodonetsk chemical plant that he said was hit by an air strike on Tuesday, releasing a large pink cloud.
“There are civilians there in bomb shelters, there are quite a few of them left, most of whom did not wish to leave,” Gaidai said. Reuters could not independently confirm the account. About 15,000 people remained in the city, Gaidai said.
Gaidai has warned that Ukrainian troops in Sievierodonetsk could be forced to retreat to Lysychansk, which he said was easier to defend from its vantage on a hill. But Russian forces would target it with artillery and mortars once in full control of Sievierodonetsk, he added.
Putin sent his troops over the border on what he calls a special military operation on Feb. 24 to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and its allies call this a baseless pretext for a war of aggression and the West has imposed stringent sanctions on Russia in a bid to strangle its economy.
Thousands of people have been killed in Ukraine and millionsmore displaced since the invasion began.
Besides the advanced rocket systems, called HIMARS, the new U.S. package includes ammunition, counter fire radars, air surveillance radars, additional Javelin anti-tank missiles and anti-armour weapons, officials said.
“The United States will stand with our Ukrainian partners and continue to provide Ukraine with weapons and equipment to defend itself,” Biden said in a statement.
The decision to give Ukraine the rocket systems was made after Washington received assurances from Kyiv that it would not use them to hit targets inside Russian territory, which could broaden the war.
Ukraine has been seeking Multiple Rocket Launch Systems (MLRS) such as the M270 and M142 HIMARS to provide more firepower at longer range to hit Russian troop concentrations and weapons stockpiles at the Russian forces’ rear.
The Pentagon said Washington would initially provide Ukraine with four HIMARS systems.
The new supplies come on top of billions of dollars worth of equipment such as drones and anti-aircraft missiles. The Biden administration plans to sell Ukraine four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles for battlefield use against Russia, three sources told Reuters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the supplies would not encourage Ukraine’s leadership to resume stalled peace talks.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Gareth Jones, Angus MacSwan and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Hugh Lawson and Grant McCool)