Boris Johnson says Ukraine needs ‘vital’ support as Russian forces slowly ‘chew through ground’ in east

Russia has ‘upper hand’ in fighting in east of country with just 5% of Luhansk region still in Ukrainian hands — governor Haidai

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has stressed the “vital” need to provide Ukraine with fresh military support including long-range rocket launchers as Russian forces slowly “chew through ground” in the east.

Mr Johnson warned that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invading army is making “palpable progress” in the Donbas region after abandoning the attempt to encircle Kyiv.

Mr Johnson argued, in an interview with Bloomberg, that more offensive weapons including long-range multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRSs) are needed.

He warned of the dangers in negotiating with the “crocodile” Mr Putin but said Mr Putin must accept that his so-called “denazification” of Ukraine has finished so he can “withdraw with dignity and honour”.

Mr Putin’s invading troops have recently captured “several villages” as they attempt to surround Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the Donbas region, said the UK ministry of defence.

But it said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s defending forces are holding “multiple defended sectors” as Russia deploys 50-year-old Soviet-era T-62 tanks.

These, the intelligence update said, “will almost certainly be particularly vulnerable” to anti-tank weapons and their use shows Russia’s lack of “modern, combat-ready equipment”.

Mr Johnson said: “I think it’s very, very important that we do not get lulled because of the incredible heroism of the Ukrainians in pushing the Russians back from the gates of Kyiv.

“I’m afraid that Putin at great cost to himself and Russian military is continuing to chew through ground in Donbas, he’s continuing to make gradual, slow but I’m afraid palpable progress.

“And therefore it is absolutely vital that we continue to support the Ukrainians militarily.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba this week urged allies, particularly the US, to provide MLRSs.

“Every day of someone sitting in Washington, Berlin, Paris and other capitals, and considering whether they should or should not do something, costs us lives and territories,” Mr Kuleba said.

The UK has M270 MLRSs but it was unclear from the interview whether Mr Johnson wanted to send the weapons from British stocks or was urging allies to send supplies.

But he said the weapons “would enable them to defend themselves against this very brutal Russian artillery, and that’s where the world needs to go down”.

Reports in the US suggest president Joe Biden’s administration is preparing to send MLRSs to Ukraine.

On peace talks, Mr Johnson said: “How can you deal with a crocodile when it’s in the middle of eating your left leg? What’s the negotiation, and that’s what Putin is doing. He will try to freeze the conflict, he will try to call a ceasefire …”

“The guy’s completely not to be trusted.”

Meanwhile, Kharkiv has been hit by fresh strikes with at least nine civilians were killed, including a child, and 19 injured.

“Today, the occupiers shelled Kharkiv again. At the moment, the list of the dead includes nine people. 19 wounded. All civilians,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said. Residents have been urged to go to, or remain in, shelters.

Officials in Ukraine have admitted that Russia has the “upper hand” in fighting in the country’s east. The governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said just 5 per cent of the area now remained in Ukrainian hands — down from about 10 per cent little more than a week ago — and that Ukrainian forces were retreating in some areas. “The Russian army has thrown all its forces at taking the Luhansk region,” he said in a video on Telegram. “Extremely fierce fighting is taking place on the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk. They are simply destroying the city, they are shelling it every day, shelling without pause.”

The Kremlin has rejected claims that Russia has blocked grain exports from Ukraine, blaming the West for creating such a situation by imposing sanctions on Russia. The UK’s foreign minister, Liz Truss, accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of “weaponising” hunger through Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports. A senior Turkish official said Ankara was in “ongoing” talks to Russia and Ukraine to open a corridor via the Bosphorus.

Two captured Russian soldiers have pleaded guilty to shelling a town in eastern Ukraine, in the second war crimes trial since Russian troops invaded the country. Alexander Bobikin and Alexander Ivanov acknowledged being part of an artillery unit that fired at targets in the Kharkiv region from Russia’s Belgorod region.

There are about 8,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war held in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, the Luhansk official Rodion Miroshnik has said. “That’s a lot, and literally hundreds are being added every day,” Mr Miroshnik was quoted by the Russian Tass news agency as saying.

The deputy prime minister of the Russian-appointed Crimean government, Georgy Muradov, has said the Sea of Azov is “forever lost to Ukraine”. Russia’s Ria news agency also quoted a Russian-appointed official in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region as saying that the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions would never be returned to the control of the Kyiv.

Russia has deployed mobile propaganda vans with large-screen televisions to humanitarian aid points in the captured city of Mariupol. The Orwellian turn comes as the Kremlin continued to push forward with efforts to integrate newly occupied territories across the south of Ukraine.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has said China’s co-operation with Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine “raises alarm bells”. Mr Blinken criticised the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, for defending Mr Putin’s “war to erase Ukraine’s sovereignty” and said it was “a charged moment for the world”.

Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who is a close Putin ally, has ordered the creation of a new military command for the south of the country bordering Ukraine. The Belarusian armed forces previously said they would deploy special operations troops in three areas near its southern border with Ukraine. Lukashenko has also talked up the role of Russian-made missiles in boosting the country’s defences.

Mr Zelenskiy has complained about divisions inside the European Union over more sanctions against Russia and asked why some nations were being allowed to block the plan. “How many more weeks will the European Union try to agree on a sixth package?” Mr Zelenskiy asked in his latest national address. “Pressure on Russia is literally a matter of saving lives,” he added.

Mr Putin and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi held a phone call to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the issue of global food security on Thursday. Speaking to journalists after the call, Mr Draghi said he would continue talking to Moscow and Kyiv to resolve the food crisis, but added that he had little optimism for ending the war. “When asked if I have seen any glimmer of hope for peace, the answer is no,” he said. Russian troops occupying the south-eastern port city of Mariupol have cancelled school summer holidays to prepare pupils for switching to a Russian curriculum, said officials. “The main goal is to eradicate everything Ukrainian and prepare for the new school year, which will be said the Russian curriculum,” city official Petro Andryushchenko said. — Reuters and Guardian