June 19, 2022, Lysychansk, Ukraine: A tank sits outside the city of Lysychansk, waiting to move into the city. Lysychansk Ukraine - ZUMAs197 20220619_zaa_s197_186 Copyright: xMadeleinexKellyx

Despite Western arms deliveries, the situation of Ukrainian troops in the heavily contested areas in the east of the country remains extremely difficult, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “We are doing everything we can to equip our military with modern artillery systems and to respond appropriately to the occupiers,” Zelenskyj said in his daily video speech on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin threatened countermeasures after Finland and Sweden joined NATO – and again claimed that the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine was going according to plan.

The Russian military is relying on massive artillery fire in the Donbass industrial area to weaken Ukrainian positions. Ukrainian artillery is outnumbered despite some modern guns arriving from the west. Fighting is currently going on for the city of Lysychansk, and Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from neighboring Sievjerodonetsk.

The previous pressure on Russia is not enough, said Zelenskyj, pointing out that ten Russian rockets were fired at the Ukrainian city of Mikolajiv on Wednesday alone. “And all were aimed at civilian targets,” he said.

According to their own statements, the Ukrainian army and the Russian side exchanged a total of almost 300 prisoners. 144 people returned to Ukraine, said Zelenskyy. The oldest is 65 years old and the youngest 19. Among the released Ukrainian soldiers are 95 fighters who, until a few weeks ago, were defending the hard-fought Azovstal steelworks in the port city of Mariupol, which has since been conquered by the Russians.

According to Ukrainian sources, it was the largest exchange of prisoners since the beginning of the war. The separatist leader Denis Puschilin, on the other hand, spoke of 144 pro-Russian and Russian fighters who had been released from Ukrainian captivity.

More than four months after Russia’s war of aggression began, Putin again claimed that hostilities were going according to plan. “The work is quiet, rhythmic, the troops are moving and reaching the lines that have been set for them as milestones,” he told reporters in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. “Everything is going according to plan.” The war is officially described by Russia as a “special operation”.

On February 24, Russian troops invaded Ukraine from several directions. Having failed to reach the capital, Kyiv, they are concentrating on the Donbass industrial area in eastern Ukraine. According to Western experts, the Russian military is advancing, but is suffering high casualties and is using up its artillery ammunition at a rapid pace.

Amnesty International has classified the air strike on the Mariupol theater in March as a war crime by Russian forces. The human rights organization collected evidence for a good three months and has now presented a report on it.

“The attack on the theater in Mariupol is a war crime by Russian troops,” said Julia Duchrow of Amnesty International Germany. Most likely, two 500-kilo bombs were dropped. Residents of the embattled Ukrainian port city had sought shelter in the theater.

Kremlin chief Putin called Russian soldiers “heroes”. Songs and poems should be written about them and monuments should be given to them, he said. Ukrainian and international experts have documented numerous cases of violence against civilians by Russian soldiers, such as the killing of residents in the Kiev suburb of Bucha.

Moscow claims the atrocities were staged. Putin declined to comment on how long the hostilities could continue. “It would be wrong to set any deadlines,” he said. More intense fighting would mean higher casualties and “the main thing we have to think about is how to save our boys’ lives.”

After Russia’s close ally Syria recognized the two eastern Ukrainian separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, Zelenskyi wants to cut all relations with the country. Russia “squeezed” this out of Syria, he said. Syria was the first country after Russia to recognize the separatist areas as states. Next to Iran, Moscow is the closest ally of the leadership in Damascus in the Syrian civil war. Not least thanks to the Russian military operation, supporters of ruler Bashar al-Assad once again control around two-thirds of the country.

The war in eastern Ukraine, where fighting for the city of Lysychansk is continuing, will remain a central topic. At the end of its summit in Madrid, NATO will deal, among other things, with the food crisis triggered by Russia’s war and the influence of Russia and China on countries in Africa.

Oil cartel Opec meets to set production strategy for August at online conference. The more than 20 countries led by Saudi Arabia and Russia are expected to keep turning on the oil tap. (dpa)