Ukraine's eastern towns bombarded, Russia offers fast-track citizenship to people in occupied regions

As Russian forces continued strikes in Eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for residents of Ukraine's Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to acquire Russian citizenship.

Assault on Severodonetsk kills 6 civilians, injures 8 others, Ukrainian officials say

A woman cleans parts of her destroyed house on Wednesday in Pokrovsk in Donetsk after a missile attack at a train station, which had been used to evacuate people from war-affected areas of eastern Ukraine. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Updates from Day 91 of the invasion

  • Severodonetsk remains under attack in the east, Ukraine officials say.

  • Zelenksy addresses Davos gathering, repeats willingness to negotiate with Russia.

  • Russia wants sanctions relief in exchange for access to food supply corridors.

  • Russia to eliminate upper age limit for military service.

  • U.S. won't extend waiver that has allowed Russia to keep up with debt payments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Wednesday simplifying the process for residents of Ukraine's Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.

The decree marks a further step toward "Russification" of the two regions, where Moscow's war in Ukraine has enabled it to establish a continuous land bridge linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Putin's move extends a scheme available to residents of areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Moscow has issued around 800,000 passports since 2019.

Russia claimed full control of the Kherson region, north of Crimea, in mid-March, and holds parts of the Zaporizhzhia region to the northeast.

In Kherson, the Ukrainian governor has been ousted and the military-civilian administration said earlier this month that it planned to ask Putin to incorporate it into Russia by the end of 2022. Ukraine has pledged to recapture all of its seized territory.

A replica of the Soviet Banner of Victory flies by a Second World War memorial in the city of Kherson on May 20. Authorities in the Moscow-controlled Ukrainian region of Kherson announced on May 23 the introduction of the ruble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia. (Audrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images)

Asked about the citizenship move, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington would "forcefully reject" any move that was part of Russian efforts to impose its will on Ukraine.

"We have seen Russia's forces attempt through other ways to subjugate or otherwise subdue the Ukrainian people in these areas," Price said at a regular press briefing.

In Eastern Ukraine, Russian forces launched offensives on multiple towns on Wednesday, with constant mortar bombardment destroying several houses and killing civilians, Ukrainian officials said, as Moscow focused attacks on the industrial Donbas region.

Russia has been focused on attempting to seize the separatist-claimed Donbas's two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front, according to Ukrainian officials.

Twin cities become pivotal battlefield

In the easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Severodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield. Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle them.

President Volodymyr Zelensky's office said Russian forces launched an offensive on Severodonetsk early on Wednesday and the town was under constant fire from mortars.

Residents of the town of Pokrovsk gather outside their heavily damaged house after two rockets struck in Eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, an attack blamed for at least four injuries. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said six civilians were killed and at least eight wounded, most near bomb shelters, in Severodonetsk.

'I have nothing'

In Pokrovsk, a Ukrainian-held Donbas city that has become a major hub for supplies and evacuations, a missile had blasted a crater in a railway track and damaged nearby buildings.

In Kramatorsk, nearer the front line, streets were largely deserted, while in Sloviansk further west, many residents took advantage of what Ukraine said was a break in the Russian assault to leave the area.

A boy sits in front of a damaged building in the city of Kramatorsk after a strike Wednesday in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

"My house was bombed, I have nothing," said Vera Safronova, seated in a train carriage among the evacuees.

Ukraine's military said it had repelled nine Russian attacks on Tuesday in the Donbas, where Moscow's troops had killed at least 14 civilians, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.

Reuters could not immediately verify information about the fighting.

The Donbas fighting follows Russia's biggest victory in months: the surrender last week of Ukraine's garrison in the port of Mariupol after a siege in which Kyiv believes tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military loss in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation in the biggest attack on a European state since 1945.

Zelensky said Wednesday that Russia must pull back to its pre-war positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.

Speaking by video link to attendees at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelensky expressed a willingness to negotiate with Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear it, too, is ready to "shift from the bloody war to diplomacy."

"[Diplomacy is] possible if Russia shows at least something. When I say at least something, I mean pulling back troops to where they were before Feb. 24," Zelensky said, referring to the day Russia's invasion began. "I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make."

Grain, food exports remain blocked

The war has also caused growing food shortages and soaring prices due to sanctions and disruption of supply chains. Both Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of grain and other commodities.

Russia said it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine, in return for the lifting of some sanctions, the Interfax news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko as saying on Wednesday.

Ukraine's Black Sea ports have been blocked since Russia sent thousands of troops into the country on Feb. 24, and more than 20 million tonnes of grain are stuck in silos in the country.

WATCH | Ukraine war deepens global food crisis:

Ukraine war deepens global food crisis

3 months ago
Duration 2:02
The impact of the Ukraine war extends far beyond the country’s borders as Russian forces have destroyed crops and blockaded ports along the Black Sea, affecting the food supply in Africa and the Middle East.

Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies, and the lack of significant grain exports from Ukraine ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.

Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower oil.

Russia pushed closer to debt default

The United States announced Wednesday it would not renew the licence that enabled Russia to make payments on its sovereign debt to U.S. bondholders through U.S. and international banks on a case-by-case basis.

The Treasury Department said on its website late on Tuesday it would not extend the waiver, set to expire Wednesday, which allowed Russia to make interest and maturity payments on the debt.

WATCH | Some actions 'always criminal,' expert says:

Expect dozens more war crimes trials to come due to Russia-Ukraine war, expert says

3 months ago
Duration 7:37
Targeting unarmed civilians during war is 'always criminal' said Michael Newton, a law professor and former U.S. State Department official. There are dozens more war crimes trials to come out of the war between Ukraine and Russia, he said.

That waiver has allowed Russia to keep up government debt payments, but its expiry now appears to make inevitable the country's first major default on international sovereign bonds in more than a century.

Almost $2 billion US worth of payments on Russian international bonds fall due before year-end.

Smoke rises above a weapon manned by pro-Russian troops and aimed in the direction of Severodonetsk on Tuesday in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Unlike in most default situations, Moscow is not short of money. Russia's debt repayment dues pale in comparison to its oil and gas revenues, which stood at $28 billion in April alone thanks to high energy prices.

The Russian Finance Ministry said it will pay in rubles and offer "the opportunity for subsequent conversion into the original currency," but that could be viewed by foreign investors as a default.

Putin hikes pensions

Putin on Wednesday announced Russians will see a 10 per cent increase to state pensions and the minimum wage in the coming weeks.

He told a State Council meeting in Moscow the moves will help offset rising prices. With annual inflation near 18 per cent last month, the Kremlin leader acknowledged that 2022 would be a "difficult" year for the Russian economy.

Putin also tasked government officials with increasing pay for Russian soldiers serving abroad.

Russia's parliament approved a law on Wednesday removing the upper age limit for contractual service in the military, amid heavy casualties in Ukraine. The bill now needs only the signature of Putin to become law.

Currently, only Russians aged 18-40 and foreigners aged 18-30 can enlist as professional soldiers in the Russian military.

Russia's defence ministry said on March 25 that 1,351 service personnel had been killed and 3,825 wounded since Moscow sent its armed forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24. It has not updated its casualty figures since.

Both Ukrainian and Western intelligence officials have said Russia's losses in Ukraine were significantly higher at the time, and have risen sharply since March.

With files from The Associated Press