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Russia takes small cities, aims to widen east Ukraine battle

The Kremlin said Putin held an 80-minute phone call Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany and demanded a stop to western sanctions.

KRAMATORSK, Donetsk Oblast — 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 defense.

The Russian Defense 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.

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.

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, and called on Putin to engage in serious, direct negotiations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on ending the fighting.

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 the Donbas, 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 Defense said in a Saturday assessment.

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. Zelenskyy 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.

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 risking it now or staying behind.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, AP reporters saw older and ill civilians bundled into soft stretchers and slowly carried down apartment building stairs Friday in Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk.

Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to convince reluctant residents to leave but said she and her husband would not evacuate until their son, who was in Sieverodonetsk, returned home.

“I have to know he is alive. That’s why I’m staying here,” said Lvova, 66.

On Saturday, people who managed to flee Lysychansk described intensified shelling, especially over the past week, that left them unable to leave basement bomb shelters.

Yanna Skakova said she left the city on Friday with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons and cried as she sat in a train bound for western Ukraine. Her husband stayed behind to take care of their house and animals.

“It’s too dangerous to stay there now,” she said, wiping away tears.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Ukrainian officials have pressed Western nations for more sophisticated and powerful weapons. The U.S. Defense Department would not confirm a Friday CNN report saying the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoliy Antonov, on said Saturday that such a move would be “unacceptable” and admonished the White House to “abandon statements about the military victory of Ukraine.”

“The unprecedented pumping of weapons into Ukraine significantly increases the risks of an escalation of the conflict,” the diplomat was quoted as saying in a Telegram post published by the embassy.

Moscow is also trying to rattle Sweden and Finland’s determination to join NATO. Russia’s Defense Ministry said its navy successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea that struck its target about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.

If confirmed, the launch could spell trouble for NATO voyages in the Arctic and North Atlantic. The Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead and is said to be impossible to stop with current defense systems.

Last week Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that Russia would form new military units in the country's west in response to Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO.

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Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York and AP journalists around the world contributed.

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