Ukrainian troops keep defying predictions during Russian advance, Zelensky says

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People walk toward the entrance of an evacuation train in Pokrovsk , Ukraine, on Saturday.
People walk toward the entrance of an evacuation train in Pokrovsk, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that no one knows how long the war in his country will last but that Ukrainian forces are defying expectations by preventing Russian troops from overrunning eastern Ukraine, where the fighting has been fiercest for weeks.

In his nightly video address, Zelensky said he was proud of the Ukrainian defenders managing to hold back the Russian advance in the Donbas region, which borders Russia and where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled much of the territory for eight years.

“Remember how in Russia, in the beginning of May, they hoped to seize all of the Donbas?” the president said late Saturday. “It’s already the 108th day of the war, already June. Donbas is holding on.”

After failing to capture Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, early in the war, Moscow focused on seizing the parts of the largely Russian-speaking Donbas still in Ukrainian hands, as well as the country's southern coast. But instead of securing a swift, decisive takeover, Russian forces were drawn into a long, laborious battle, thanks in part to the Ukrainian military's use of Western-supplied weapons.

Meanwhile, Kremlin-installed officials in occupied southern Ukraine celebrated Russia Day on Sunday and began issuing Russian passports to residents in one city who requested them, as Moscow sought to solidify its rule over captured parts of the country.

At one of the central squares in the city of Kherson, Russian bands played a concert to celebrate Russia Day, the holiday that marks Russia’s emergence as a sovereign state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti. In the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, Moscow-installed officials raised a Russian flag in Melitopol’s city center.

Ukrainian media reported that few, if any, residents attended the Russia Day festivities in the two cities.

Russia Day was also celebrated in other occupied parts of Ukraine, including the ravaged southern port of Mariupol, where a new city sign painted in the colors of the Russian flag was unveiled on the outskirts and Russian flags were flown on a highway leading into the city.

Also, the Russia-aligned administration in Melitopol started handing out Russian passports to those who applied for Russian citizenship. RIA Novosti posted video of a Moscow-backed official congratulating new Russian citizens and telling them: “Russia will not go anywhere. We are here for good.”

Both Ukrainian and Russian authorities said Severodonetsk, an eastern city with a prewar population of 100,000, remained contested. The city and neighboring Lysychansk are the last major areas of the Donbas' Luhansk province not under the control of the pro-Russia rebels.

Leonid Pasechnik, the head of the separatist-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, said Ukrainian fighters remained in an industrial area of the city, including a chemical plant where civilians had taken shelter from days of Russian shelling.

“Severodonetsk is not completely 100% liberated," Pasechnik said Saturday, alleging that the Ukrainians were shelling the city from the Azot chemical plant. “So it’s impossible to call the situation calm in Severodonetsk, that it is completely ours.”

Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai reported Saturday that a big fire broke out at the plant during hours of Russian shelling.

Zelensky said that while an end to the war was not in sight, Ukraine should do everything it can so the Russians “regret everything that they have done and that they answer for every killing and every strike on our beautiful state.”

The Ukrainian leader asserted that Russia has suffered about three times as many military casualties as the number estimated for the Ukrainian side, adding: "For what? What did it get you, Russia?” There are no reliable independent estimates of the war’s death toll so far.

Speaking at a defense conference in Singapore on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe said Beijing continues to support peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and hopes the U.S. and its NATO allies have discussions with Russia "to create the conditions for an early cease-fire.”

“China will continue to play a constructive role and contribute our share to easing tensions and realizing a political resolution of the crisis,” Wei said.

He suggested that nations supplying weapons to Ukraine were hindering peace by “adding fuel to the fire” and stressed that China had not provided any material support to Russia during the war.

“The growth of China-Russia relations is a partnership, not an alliance,” Wei said.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, said in its latest assessment that Ukrainian intelligence suggested that the Russian military was planning “to fight a longer war.”

The institute cited the deputy head of Ukraine's national security agency as saying that Moscow had extended its war timeline until October, with adjustments to be made depending on any successes in the Donbas.

The intelligence “likely indicates the Kremlin has, at a minimum, acknowledged it cannot achieve its objectives in Ukraine quickly and is further adjusting its military objectives in an attempt to correct the initial deficiencies in the invasion of Ukraine,” the think tank said.

The self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic's ambassador to Russia, Rodion Miroshnik, said Saturday that 300 to 400 Ukrainian troops remained blockaded inside the Severodonetsk chemical plant along with several hundred civilians.

The Russians established contact with the Ukrainian troops to arrange the evacuation of the civilians, but the troops will be allowed to leave only if they lay down their arms and surrender, Miroshnik said.

Similar conditions existed for weeks at a steel mill in Mariupol before a civilian evacuation was arranged and the defending troops were ordered by Ukrainian military commanders to stand down. The fighters who came out of the Mariupol plant were taken prisoner by the Russians.

Pasechnik, the separatist leader of the unrecognized Luhansk republic, said the Ukrainians making a stand in Severodonetsk should save themselves the trouble.

“If I were them, I would already make a decision [to surrender],” he said. “We will achieve our goal in any case. We will liberate the industrial area in any case. We will liberate Severodonetsk in any case. Lysychansk will be ours in any case.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.