Ukrainian units have probably withdrawn 'to avoid being encircled' as Russian troops advance toward Lysychansk, the UK said

Brussels (AFP) - EU leaders met Thursday to discuss Ukraine’s long-sought bid to join the bloc, even as tensions between Brussels and Moscow deepened over gas supplies and Russia closed in on key cities in the embattled Donbas region.

“This is a decisive moment for the European Union… A choice must be made today that will determine the future of the union, our stability, our security and our prosperity,” EU council president Charles Michel told journalists ahead of the talks.

“We are waiting for the green light, Ukraine has earned candidate status,” the head of the Ukrainian presidency Andriy Yermak said on Telegram.

But joining the EU is still years away, and the potential consequences for Ukraine’s allies loomed large over the talks, and ahead of the G7 and NATO meetings in the following days.

Western officials denounced Moscow’s “weaponising” of its key gas and grain exports in the conflict, with a US official warning of further retaliatory measures at the G7 summit in Germany starting Sunday.

Germany ratcheted up an emergency gas plan to its second alert level, just one short of the maximum that could require rationing in Europe’s largest economy after Russia slashed its supplies.

“Gas is now a scarce commodity,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck told reporters, urging households to cut back on use.

France is now aiming to have its gas storage reserves at full capacity by early autumn, and will build a new floating methane terminal to get more energy supplies by sea, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said.

A Kremlin spokesman reiterated its claim that the supply cuts were due to maintenance and that necessary equipment from abroad had not arrived.

In Ankara meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “weaponising hunger” by preventing grain shipments from leaving Ukraine ports, raising the spectre of shortages particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

Ukraine says their troops will 'hold on as long as necessary'

“We are very clear that this grain crisis is urgent, that it needs to be solved within the next month. Otherwise we could see devastating consequences,” Truss said after talks with her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

- Russia presses gains -

On the ground in the Donbas, the situation was becoming increasingly urgent as Russian forces tightened their grip on the strategically important cities of Severodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk across the Donets river.

French President Emmanuel Macron with EU leaders ahead of a summit on Thursday

Taking the cities would give Moscow control of the whole of Lugansk, allowing Russia to press further into the Donbas and potentially further west.

Ukraine acknowledged Thursday that it had lost control of two areas from where it was defending the cities, with Russian forces now closer to encircling the industrial hubs.

Britain’s defence ministry said some Ukrainian units had probably been forced to withdraw “to avoid being encircled” as troops advanced slowly but steadily toward Lysychansk.

“Russia’s improved performance in this sector is likely a result of recent unit reinforcement and heavy concentration of fire,” it said in its latest intelligence update.

A representative of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine told AFP the resistance of Ukrainian forces trying to defend Lysychansk and Severodonetsk was “pointless and futile.”

“At the rate our soldiers are going, very soon the whole territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic will be liberated,” said Andrei Marochko, a spokesman for the army of Lugansk.

Map of Ukraine showing position of military forces in Ukraine as of June 23, 0700 GMT

The Russian army also said Thursday that its bombings in the southern city of Mykolaiv had destroyed 49 fuel storage tanks and three tank repair depots, after strikes killed several Ukrainian troops Wednesday.

But Kyiv, which is urging allies to send heavier weaponry, welcomed Thursday the delivery of high-precision Himars rocket artillery from the US.

“Himars have arrived to Ukraine… Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them,” Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov wrote on Twitter.

- ‘Only grannies left’ -

After being pushed back from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine in the initial weeks of the invasion launched on February 24, Moscow is seeking to seize a vast eastern swathe of the country.

A partially destroyed educational and laboratory building at a Kharkiv college struck by Russian rocket fire

But daily bombardments also continue elsewhere.

The northeastern city of Kharkiv near the Russian border was near empty on Wednesday, AFP reporters said, a day after shelling by Moscow’s forces killed five people there.

“Last night the building next to mine collapsed from the bombardment while I was sleeping,” said Leyla Shoydhry, a young woman in a park near the opera house.

Roman Pohuliay, a 19-year-old in a pink sweatshirt, said most residents had fled the city.

“Only the grannies are left,” he said.

Women training to use Kalashnikov assault rifles as Russian forces edged nearer to the city of Zaporizhzhia

In the central city of Zaporizhzhia, meanwhile, women were training to use Kalashnikov assault rifles in urban combat as Russian forces edged nearer.

“When you can do something, it’s not so scary to take a machine gun in your hands,” said Ulyana Kiyashko, 29, after moving through an improvised combat zone in a basement.

- Lithuania in cross-hairs -

Away from the battlefield, Moscow this week summoned Brussels’ ambassador in a dispute with EU member Lithuania over the country’s restrictions on rail traffic to the Russian outpost of Kaliningrad.

The coastal territory, annexed from Germany after World War II, is about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) from Moscow, and borders Lithuania and Poland but has no land border with Russia.

By blocking goods arriving from Russia, Lithuania says it is simply adhering to European Union-wide sanctions on Moscow.

The United States made clear its commitment to Lithuania as a NATO ally, while Germany urged Russia not to “violate international law” by retaliating.

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