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Ukraine faces dilemma over fight for Donbas


Ukrainian soldiers near Sievierodonetsk last week.

By Marc Santora and Shashank Bengali


As Ukraine fights to hold defensive positions in the Donbas region in the face of a Russian bombardment, its military planners are increasingly confronting the difficult question of whether to withdraw from front-line cities to preserve soldiers’ lives, even if it means a more brutal fight to regain them.


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered a window into the dilemma facing Ukraine in the eastern cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, describing them in remarks to journalists Monday as “dead cities” ravaged by Russian attacks and nearly empty of civilians. If Ukrainian forces do not withdraw, they risk being encircled and besieged, as fighters were in Mariupol, where more than 2,000 eventually had to surrender to Russian custody.


But a retreat from Sievierodonetsk, which Russia has surrounded from three sides, and where Russia and Ukraine have waged fierce street battles for days, would give Moscow control of the entire Luhansk region, which is part of Donbas, and make future attempts to retake the city even more costly, Zelenskyy said.


Zelenskyy’s stature as a wartime leader is built in part on his vow that Ukraine will fight to regain all of its territory, even the lands in Donbas and Crimea seized by Russia and Moscow-allied separatists beginning in 2014. On Monday, he said that if Russia succeeded in its objective of gaining control of the entire industrial Donbas region, it would present an existential challenge, giving Russia territory from which it can launch “constant missile strikes on the center of Ukraine.”


But he promised that the military would not let that happen, telling the nation later in his overnight address: “The Ukrainian Donbas stands. It stands firmly.”


One sign of hope for the still vastly outgunned Ukrainian military is the arrival of powerful Western weapons systems the United States and its allies hope will help dent Russia’s advantage in firepower. As Ukraine races to train its soldiers on the more sophisticated new weapons, they may already be having an effect in the Black Sea, where the Ukrainian navy said Monday that Russian warships had pulled back more than 70 miles from the Ukrainian coast, a development that it attributed to the arrival of Harpoon anti-ship missile systems from Denmark.


But the Russians still control the sea, where their naval forces have in effect imposed a blockade to strangle the Ukrainian economy, preventing Ukraine from exporting millions of tons of grain.


In other developments:


— More than 40,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed or injured since Russia invaded Ukraine and roughly 3 million are now living under Russian occupation, according to the Ukrainian government.


— Charles Michel, president of the European Council, accused Russia of using its leverage over the world’s food supply as “a stealth missile against developing countries.”


— Exiled leaders from the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol warned of a growing risk of disease because sewage systems are not working, dead bodies are rotting in the streets and tens of thousands who remain in the ruin lack access to clean water.


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