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France, Germany push Putin for resumed peace talks as Russia pummels Ukraine's east

Russian forces stepped up their assault on the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk on Saturday after claiming to have captured the nearby rail hub of Lyman, as Kyiv intensified its calls for longer-range weaponry from the West to help it fight back in the Donbas region.

Russia asserts progress in its goal of seizing entirety of contested Donbas region

As Russia asserted progress in its goal of seizing the entirety of contested eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin tried Saturday to shake European resolve to punish his country with sanctions and to keep supplying weapons that have supported Ukraine's defence.

The Kremlin said Putin held an 80-minute phone call Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany in which he warned against the continued transfers of Western weapons to Ukraine and blamed the conflict's disruption to global food supplies on Western sanctions.

The war has caused global food shortages because Ukraine is a major exporter of grain and other commodities. Moscow and Kyiv have traded accusations over which side bears responsibility for keeping shipments tied up, with Russia saying Ukrainian sea mines prevented safe passage and Ukraine citing a Russian naval blockade.

The press service of the Ukrainian Naval Forces said two Russian vessels "capable of carrying up to 16 missiles" were ready for action in the Black Sea, adding that only shipping routes established through multilateral treaties may be considered safe.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron urged an immediate cease-fire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, according to the chancellor's spokesperson. They called on Putin to engage in serious, direct negotiations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on ending the fighting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Saturday. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

A Kremlin readout of the call said Putin affirmed "the openness of the Russian side to the resumption of dialogue." The three leaders, who had gone weeks without speaking during the spring, agreed to stay in contact, it added.

But Russia's recent progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, could further embolden Putin. Since failing to occupy Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, Russia has set out to seize the last parts of the region not controlled by the separatists.

"If Russia did succeed in taking over these areas, it would highly likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantive political achievement and be portrayed to the Russian people as justifying the invasion," the British Ministry of Defence said in a Saturday assessment.

Germany and France brokered a 2015 peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia that would have given a large degree of autonomy to Moscow-backed rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. However, the agreement stalled long before Russia's invasion in February. Any hope that Paris and Berlin would anchor a renewed peace agreement now appears unlikely with both Kyiv and Moscow taking uncompromising stands.

Donbas offensive

The Russian Defence Ministry said Lyman, the second small city to fall this week, had been "completely liberated" by a joint force of Russian soldiers and Kremlin-backed separatists, who have waged war for eight years in the industrial Donbas region bordering Russia.

Ukraine's train system has ferried arms and evacuated citizens through Lyman, a key railway hub in the east. Control of it also would give Russia's military another foothold in the region; it has bridges for troops and equipment to cross the Siverskiy Donets river, which has so far impeded the Russian advance into the Donbas.

Ukrainian officials have sent mixed signals on Lyman. On Friday, Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russian troops controlled most of it and were trying to press their offensive toward Bakhmut, another city in the region. On Saturday, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar disputed Moscow's claim that Lyman had fallen, saying fighting there was still ongoing.

Russia has intensified efforts to capture the larger cities of Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk, which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk. Zelensky called the situation in the east "difficult" but expressed confidence his country would prevail with help from Western weapons and sanctions.

"If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian," he said.

Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai reported that Ukrainian fighters repelled an assault on Sievierodonetsk but Russian troops still pushed to encircle them. Later Saturday he said Russian forces had seized a hotel on the city's outskirts.

Pro-Russian troops fire rockets near Panteleimonivka, Donbas region, on Saturday. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)

Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said the previous day that some 1,500 civilians in the city, which had a prewar population of around 100,000, have died, including from a lack of medicine or diseases that could not be treated.

Russia's advance raised fears that residents could experience the same horrors seen in the southeastern port city of Mariupol in the weeks before it fell. Residents who had not yet fled faced the choice of trying to do so now or staying.

A nearly three-month siege of Mariupol ended last week when Russia claimed complete control of the city. Mariupol became a symbol of massive destruction and human suffering, as well as of Ukrainian determination to defend the country.

WATCH | War hits 'maximum intensity' on eastern front: 

Russia pounds Ukraine’s Donbas as war hits ‘maximum intensity’ on eastern front

1 month ago
Duration 2:08
The fighting in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region has reached ‘maximum intensity,’ according to Ukrainian officials who say their troops are being outnumbered by Russian forces, which are heavily shelling supply lines and escape routes in the east.

Mariupol's port has reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing mines in the Azov Sea. Russian state news agency Tass reported that a vessel bound for Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia entered port early Saturday.

In the call with Macron and Scholz, the Kremlin said, Putin emphasized that Russia was working to "establish a peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated cities in the Donbas."

Ukrainian authorities have reported that Kremlin-installed officials in seized cities have started airing Russian news broadcasts, introduced Russian area codes, imported Russian school curriculum and taken other steps to annex the areas.

Russian-held areas of the southern Kherson region have shifted to Moscow time and "will no longer switch to daylight saving time, as is customary in Ukraine," Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Krill Stremousov, a Russian-installed local official, as saying Saturday.

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