EU agrees to ban majority of Russian oil imports amid intense fighting in Eastern Ukraine

Russian troops pushed farther into a key Eastern Ukrainian city and fought street by street with Ukrainian forces Monday, while European Union leaders agreed to ban a majority of Russian oil imports.

Eastern city of Severodonetsk 'completely ruined' by Russian forces, says mayor

Updates from Day 96 of the invasion

  • French journalist reportedly shot and killed near Severodonetsk.

  • Russia says it struck a shipbuilding facility in Black Sea city of Mykolaiv.

  • Biden says U.S. won't send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine.

  • EU leaders agree on embargo for Russian oil brought in by sea.

Russian troops pushed farther into a key Eastern Ukrainian city and fought street by street with Kyiv's forces Monday in a battle the mayor said has left the city in ruins and driven tens of thousands of people from their homes.

The Russian focus on Severodonetsk has already left the city "completely ruined," Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said. Artillery barrages have destroyed critical infrastructure and damaged 90 per cent of the buildings, and power and communications have been largely cut to a city that was once home to 100,000 people.

"The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and the wounded amid the street fighting," Striuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview, adding that Moscow's troops advanced a few more blocks toward the city centre.

He said that only about 12,000 to 13,000 residents remain in the city, sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape the Russian bombardment — a situation that recalls the siege of Mariupol that trapped residents and led to some of the worst suffering of the war.

Ukrainian tanks move in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region on Monday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

Striuk estimated that 1,500 civilians have died in his city since the war began, from Russian attacks as well as from the dire conditions, including a lack of medicine or medical treatment. More than 20,000 are feared dead in Mariupol.

A 32-year-old French journalist, Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff, died Monday near Severodonetsk when he was hit by shrapnel from shelling while covering Ukrainians evacuating the area, according to his employer, French broadcaster BFM TV.

Battles in Ukraine's east, south

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces reinforced their positions on the northeastern and southeastern outskirts of Severodonetsk, 145 kilometres south of the Russian border in an area that is the last pocket of Ukrainian government control in Luhansk.

Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were also pushing toward nearby Lysychansk. In addition to the journalist, two civilians were killed and another five were wounded in the latest Russian shelling, he said.

The Russian advance in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk on either side of the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River is part of an all-out push, said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.

The intensity of the latest fighting and the fact that Russia has poured troops in from their far east have come as a surprise to the Ukrainians, who are trying to hold out until more weapons can arrive, Zhdanov said.

"The Ukrainian army can't afford losing as many soldiers as the Russians," Zhdanov said. "The Ukrainians hope that Russia will run out of steam soon."

Russian pressure also continued in the south on Monday. Defence Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said an artillery strike on a shipyard in the southern port of Mykolaiv destroyed Ukrainian armoured vehicles parked there.

In the Kherson region, the Russia-installed deputy head of the regional administration, Kirill Stremousov, told Russia's Tass state news agency that grain from last year's harvest is being delivered to Russian buyers, adding that "obviously there is a lot of grain here." Ukraine has accused Russia of looting grain from territories its forces hold, and the U.S. has alleged Moscow is jeopardizing global food supplies by preventing Ukraine from exporting its harvest.

In his nightly video address Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russian blockade of Ukrainian sea ports is preventing Kyiv from exporting 22 million tons of grain, creating the threat of famine in countries dependent on the grain and the potential for a new migration crisis. 

Zelensky accused Moscow of "deliberately creating this problem so that the whole of Europe struggles and so that Ukraine doesn't earn billions of dollars from its exports."

Plea for more Western weapons

Military analysts painted the fight for Severodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin. The city is key to Russian efforts to complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of the Donbas quickly — before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine's defence.

Weapons from the West have already helped Ukraine thwart a Russian advance on the capital in the early weeks of the war. That failure forced Moscow to withdraw, regroup, and pursue the more limited objective of seizing the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists already held swaths of territory and have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years.

But in a potential setback for Ukraine, President Joe Biden appeared to dismiss reports that the U.S. was considering sending long-range rocket systems to the country.

A rocket launcher is transported by Ukrainian forces near Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, on Monday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On Monday, Biden told reporters outside the White House that there are no plans for the U.S. to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, amid reports that the move is being considered.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia's Security Council, said that was a "reasonable" decision.

He said that "otherwise, if our cities come under attack, the Russian armed forces would fulfill their threat and strike the centres where such criminal decisions are made."

Medvedev added that "some of them aren't in Kyiv."

EU embargo on most Russian oil

European Union leaders agreed late Monday to cut a large majority of Russian oil imports over the next six months.

The oil embargo is tied up in a new package of sanctions that will also target Russia's biggest bank and state media outlets accused of spreading propaganda. The watered-down embargo covers only Russian oil brought into Europe by sea, allowing a temporary exemption for imports delivered by pipeline.

The EU estimated that could mean around 90 per cent of Russian oil is banned by the end of the year. As part of the measure, Germany and Poland agreed to stop using oil from the northern branch of the Druzhba pipeline.

In response to the EU's decision, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, took to Twitter, saying: "Russia will find other importers."

Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban made clear that he could only support the new sanctions if his country's oil supply security was guaranteed. Hungary gets more than 60 per cent of its oil from Russia and depends on crude that comes through the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline.

The EU gets about 40 per cent of its natural gas and 25 per cent of its oil from Russia, and divisions over the issue exposed the limits of the 27-nation trading bloc's ambitions.

The sanctions package must still be finalized in coming days.