Russia offers fast-track citizenship to residents of occupied Ukraine

Russian forces launched offensives on towns in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, with constant mortar bombardment destroying several houses and killing civilians.

 A bus carrying service members of the Ukrainian armed forces, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill, drives away under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)
A bus carrying service members of the Ukrainian armed forces, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill, drives away under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Wednesday simplifying the process for residents of Ukraine's Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.

The decree extends a scheme available since 2019 to residents of areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

RUSSIA LAUNCHES FRESH ASSAULT

Russia launched a fresh assault before dawn on Wednesday on the easternmost Ukrainian-held city in the battlefield Donbas region, threatening to close off the last main escape route for civilians trapped in the path of the advance.

After failing to seize Kyiv or Ukraine's second city Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take full control of the Donbas, comprised of two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

Russia has poured thousands of troops into the region, attacking from three sides in the hope of encircling Ukrainian forces holding out in the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin Lysychansk on the west bank. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk region under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.

 War crime prosecutor's team member speaks on the phone next to buildings that were destroyed by Russian shelling, amid Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, Ukraine April 7, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA) War crime prosecutor's team member speaks on the phone next to buildings that were destroyed by Russian shelling, amid Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, Ukraine April 7, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA)

"All the remaining strength of the Russian army is now concentrated on this region," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late night address.

His office said the Russians had launched an offensive on Sievierodonetsk early on Wednesday and the town was under constant fire from mortars.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said six civilians had been killed and at least eight wounded, most near bomb shelters, in Sievierodonetsk. The main road out was still being shelled, he said, but humanitarian aid was still getting in.

Ukraine's military said fighting for the road was ongoing, and that on Tuesday it had repelled nine Russian attacks in the Donbas. It reported at least 14 civilians killed in strikes by aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.

In Pokrovsk, a Ukrainian-held Donbas city that has become a major hub for supplies and evacuations, a missile had blasted a crater in a railway track and damaged nearby buildings, including Lydiia Oleksiivna's house.

She was clearing dust and ash that covered her kitchen. The windows had been blown out and external walls destroyed. "I don't know if we can save the house," she said.

In Kramatorsk, nearer the front line, streets were largely deserted, while in Sloviansk further west, many residents took advantage of what Ukraine said was a break in the Russian assault to leave.

"My house was bombed, I have nothing," said Vera Safronova, seated in a train carriage among the evacuees.

My house was bombed, I have nothing

Vera Safronova, Ukrainian refugee

FOOD BLOCKADE

Russia is also targeting southern Ukraine, where officials said shelling had killed a civilian and damaged scores of houses in Zaporozhzhia and missiles had destroyed an industrial facility in Kryviy Rih.

Moscow has blockaded ships from southern Ukraine that would normally export Ukrainian grain and sunflower oil through the Black Sea, pushing up prices globally and threatening lives.

Russia has blamed Western sanctions for the food crisis. It said on Wednesday it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine but sanctions would need to be lifted in return.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Moscow was in touch with the United Nations, and "does not rule out the possibility of global talks to unblock Ukraine's ports", he said.

Britain's Defence Minister Ben Wallace reiterated the West's rejection of the idea it might lift sanctions to free up the grain. "That grain is for starving countries," he said.

In the latest sign of Moscow's plans to solidify its grip on territory it has seized, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for residents of newly captured districts to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.

Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military losses in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation as Moscow stepped up artillery strikes to compensate for its slow progress.

The Russian parliament scrapped the upper age limit for contractual service in the military on Wednesday, highlighting the need to replace lost troops.

ECONOMIC SQUEEZE

Western nations have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration said on Tuesday it would not extend a waiver set to expire on Wednesday that enabled Russia to continue to pay US bondholders.

The decision could push Moscow closer to the brink of default, although Moscow is not short of money. Oil and gas revenues stood at $28 billion in April alone, thanks to high energy prices.

British retailer Marks & Spencer on Wednesday became the latest company to announce it would pull out of Russia completely, taking a charge of 31 million pounds ($39 million).

In a speech by video link to dignitaries at a global forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy said the conflict could only be ended with direct talks between him and Putin.

As a "first step towards talks", Russia should withdraw to lines in place before its Feb. 24 invasion, he said. Prior to the invasion, Russia held Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, while its separatist proxies occupied parts of the Donbas.

Ukraine's closest allies say they fear other Western countries might push Kyiv to give up land. The prime minister of Estonia said Ukraine should not be forced into compromises.

"It is much more dangerous giving in to Putin than provoking him. All these seemingly small concessions to the aggressor lead to big wars. We have done this mistake already three times: Georgia, Crimea and Donbas."