Russia urged to annex Ukraine's Kherson as battles rage
Pro-Kremlin authorities in Ukraine's Kherson said Wednesday they will ask Russia to annex the region as Moscow seeks to shore up its gains in the increasingly drawn-out and bloody war.
Gas supplies to energy-starved Europe were also disrupted by a halt in Russian supplies flowing through Ukraine as the international shockwaves of the February 24 invasion continued.
The developments came as Ukraine said it was pushing Russian troops away from the country's second city Kharkiv in the northeast but facing stiff resistance from the invading forces.
Russia has focused on eastern and southern Ukraine since it failed to take Kyiv in the first weeks after the February 24 invasion, and US intelligence has warned Putin is ready for a long war.
Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall after the Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour, is north of Crimea, which itself was annexed by Moscow in 2014 after an internationally-condemned vote.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of Kherson's Moscow-installed civilian and military administration, said there would be a "request to make Kherson region a full subject of the Russian Federation."
Stremousov suggested the authorities would appeal directly to Putin without putting the move to a vote. But the Kremlin replied that it was up to the residents of Kherson to "determine their own fate".
Kherson is just north of Crimea and essential for its water supplies. But Russia also appears set on creating a land bridge to Crimea from its own territory, with US intelligence suggesting it wants to go all the way across the southern coast to Moldova.
- 'They come in waves' -
On the battlefield, Ukraine's forces were boosted by what Kyiv says is the recapture of four villages around Kharkiv
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Tuesday that he had "good news" from Kharkiv and praised the "superhuman strength" of Ukrainian defenders.
Ukraine's general staff of the armed forces said Wednesday that "occupiers continue to focus their efforts on preventing the further advance of our troops towards the state border of Ukraine" from Kharkiv.
But Ukraine is engaged in what appears to be an increasingly desperate effort to hold the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east.
"They come in waves," volunteer fighter Mykola said of the Russians' repeated attempts to push south past a strategic river near a rural settlement called Bilogorivka.
Nearby, the casing of a cluster munition stood upright like a fence pole not far from a team of Ukrainian medics rushing a bleeding soldier from the eastern front.
One of the doctors reassured the wincing fighter that the tourniquet being squeezed just above his knee did not mean he was about to lose a part of his leg.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Tuesday said Putin was "preparing for prolonged conflict" and "still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas."
- 'Unwavering determination' -
The war in Ukraine has also fuelled Europe's growing energy crisis, with Kyiv pressing for an embargo on oil and gas imports from Russia.
Ukraine on Wednesday said Russia had halted gas supplies through a key transit hub in the east of the country, a day after the Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz said it was no longer responsible for gas coming through Russian-occupied territory.
Germany said inflows of Russian gas had as a result fallen by a quarter compared to a day before, although it was getting extra supplies from Norway and the Netherlands.
Germany is highly dependent on Russia for its gas supplies and has rejected an immediate full embargo on Russian gas, although it backs a halt on Russian oil that the EU is seeking.
Ukraine has been pushing Western countries for more support on all fronts, with Washington the latest to step up.
As President Joe Biden warned that Ukraine would within days likely run out of funds to keep fighting, the US House of Representatives voted late Tuesday to send a $40 billion aid package to the country.
"With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
The United States views it as increasingly likely that Putin will mobilise his entire country, including ordering martial law, and is counting on his perseverance to wear down Western support for Ukraine.
As Russia cracks down internally, a member of the band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, said she had left Russia by disguising herself as a food delivery courier to escape police.
- 'Ukrainian culture exists' -
One of the key symbols of Ukrainian resistance has been the strategic port of Mariupol, where Ukraine says around 1,000 troops remain trapped in increasingly dire circumstances at the Azovstal steelworks.
The sprawling plant is the final bastion of Ukraine's defiance in the devastated city, over which Russia now has almost complete control.
A sister plant of the Azovstal mill in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia has highlighted how the Mariupol facility has proven key to the Ukrainian resistance to the numerically superior Russian force.
"We can stay in the shelters for a long time," said Zaporizhstal employee Ihor Buhlayev, 20, in his hooded silver safety gear as molten metal flowed and sparked behind him. "I think it will give us the chance to survive."
One other rallying point for Ukrainians has become the Eurovision song contest, the world's biggest live music event which takes place this weekend.
Ukraine's rap folk band Kalush Orchestra is the favourite to win the camp celebration, and they progressed through Tuesday night's semi-final to ensure they participate in Saturday's grand final.
"We are here to show that Ukrainian music and Ukrainian culture exists," frontman rapper Oleh Psiuk said.
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