The Austrian capital Vienna has made a comeback as the world’s most liveable city, according to an annual report from the Economist published Thursday.
The Ukrainian capital Kyiv was not included this year after Russia invaded the country in late February, while Russian cities Moscow and St Petersburg fell in the rankings over “censorship” and the impact of Western sanctions.
Vienna snatched the top spot from Auckland, which tumbled down to 34th place due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, according to the report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
The governor of the eastern Ukrainian region now seeing heavy fighting with Russia, Sergiy Gaiday, opened the pockets of his flack jacket Saturday to show gun cartridges and a tourniquet.
Appointed by President Volodymyr Zelensky, the 46-year-old heads the Lugansk region, including the city of Severodonetsk, where Russians are fighting street battles, and Lysychansk, where bangs of artillery are near-constant.
“It’s a tough situation, in the city (of Lysychansk) and in the region as a whole,” he told AFP in an interview, as Russians “are just shelling our troop positions 24 hours a day.”
In Lysychansk, there are signs of preparations for street fighting: soldiers digging in, putting up barbed wire, and police placing burnt-out vehicles sideways across roads to slow traffic.
“There’s an expression: prepare for the worst and the best will come by itself, Gaiday said. “of course, we need to prepare.”
Gaiday has warned of the danger that Russian troops will encircle Lysychansk by cutting off supply roads.
“Theoretically it’s possible. This is a war, anything can happen, he said.
“It could turn out that they cut off the region and we really do end up encircled. Maybe there will be fighting even in Lysychansk — this is war.”
From Lysychansk, Ukrainian artillery is firing at Severodonetsk, where smoke rises from the Azot factory and Russian troops fire back shells and rockets.
“Look how long Severodonetsk has held out: you can see they (the Russians) don’t control the town fully… they can’t go further in and they can’t put their big guns or tanks there,” the governor said.
He called for supplies of “long-range weaponry to arrive as soon as possible”.
“The fact that the West is helping us is good, but it’s (too) late.”
The leaders of major EU powers France, Germany and Italy vowed Thursday to help Ukraine defeat Russia and to rebuild its shattered cities, in a visit to a war-torn Kyiv suburb.
French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian premier Mario Draghi arrived in Ukraine by train and headed to Irpin, scene of fierce battles early in Russia’s invasion.
“France has been alongside Ukraine since day one. We stand with the Ukrainians without ambiguity. Ukraine must resist and win,” Macron told journalists.
Surrounded by the wreckage left by Ukraine’s successful but hard-fought defence of its capital in the early stages of the 113-day-old conflict, Draghi said: “We will rebuild everything.
“They destroyed kindergartens, they destroyed playgrounds. Everything will be rebuilt,” he promised.
It is the first time the three have visited Kyiv since Russia’s February 24 invasion.
Ukraine has applied to join the European Union and, although no-one in Brussels expects this to be a quick process, the leaders of the bloc’s most powerful countries were expected to bring President Volodymyr Zelensky a positive message.
Kyiv is also pleading with its western allies to step up supplies of weapons to its forces, which are outgunned by Russian artillery on the frontline in east of the country.
– ‘Stand by Ukraine’ –
Germany, especially, has been criticised for slow weapons deliveries, but western defence ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss what more they can do and on Wednesday US President Joe Biden announced $1 billion worth of new arms for Ukrainian forces.
Moscow was dismissive of the European visit, and of the arms supplies.
“Supporting Ukraine by further pumping Ukraine with weapons,” warned Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would be “absolutely useless and will cause further damage to the country”.
The new US support package includes howitzers, ammunition, anti-ship missile systems, and additional rockets for new artillery systems that Ukraine will soon put in the field.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is focused on the industrial city of Severodonetsk, and Russians forces appear close to consolidating control after weeks of intense battles.
Sergiy Gaiday — the governor of the Lugansk region, which includes the city — said Thursday around 10,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, out of a pre-war population of some 100,000.
Kyiv’s army is “holding back the enemy as much as possible,” he said on Telegram. “For almost four months they have dreamt of controlling Severodonetsk… and they do not count the victims.”
– Civilians trapped –
Moscow’s forces have destroyed the three bridges spanning a river between the city and Lysychansk.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a Severodonetsk chemical plant, which is under constant bombardment, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Russia said Ukrainian authorities had on Wednesday prevented an attempt at evacuating them.
From an elevated position in Lysychansk, an AFP team saw black smoke rising from the Azot chemical factory in Severodonetsk and another area in the city.
The head of the Severodonetsk city administration Oleksandr Stryuk told Ukrainian television on Thursday that there were about 500 civilians trapped in shelters at the plant.
“Fighting and constant shelling have been going on there for almost a week now,” he said, warning that the shelling could damage ammonia storage and trigger a chemical disaster. “It is a miracle that the whole city has not been affected.”
The Ukrainian military was using the high ground to exchange fire with Russian forces across the river.
– Seeking more arms –
Elsewhere, Russia launched a missile strike in Ukraine’s north-east Sumy region, killing four people and injuring six others, governor Dmytro Zhyvytsky said on Telegram.
In Brussels, Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov and other officials met with around 50 countries of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group at NATO headquarters asking for a surge in weapons and ammunition.
“Ukraine is really in a very critical situation and therefore, it’s an urgent need to step up,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told journalists ahead of two days of talks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile underscored that he was not as isolated internationally as his foes would wish with a call with China’s leader Xi Jinping, their second reported call since Russia attacked Ukraine.
China has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and has been accused of providing diplomatic cover for Russia by criticising Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv.
The United Nations warned a hunger crisis that has been worsened by the war in Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket to the world, could swell already record global displacement numbers.
Addressing the food insecurity crisis is “of paramount importance… to prevent a larger number of people moving,” the United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi told reporters.
Russia said Sunday that it had destroyed tanks supplied to Ukraine by eastern European countries during strikes on Kyiv.
“High-precision, long-range missiles fired by the Russian Aerospace Forces on the outskirts of Kyiv destroyed T-72 tanks supplied by eastern European countries and other armoured vehicles that were in hangars,” Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
Earlier on Sunday, Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, had said that the Ukrainian capital had been hit by “several explosions in Darnytsky and Dniprovsky districts of city”, the first such strikes on the capital since April 28.
According to the Ukrainian air force, several cruise missiles were fired in the direction of Kyiv by Russian TU-95 planes based in the Caspian Sea, one of which was destroyed.
Relative calm had returned in recent weeks to Kyiv after Moscow abandoned its assault on the capital to concentrate on eastern Ukraine.
Explosions rocked the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Sunday as a regional governor said Ukrainian forces were pushing back against Russian troops in the strategic eastern city of Severodonetsk.
The battle for Ukraine’s eastern city of Severodonetsk was being waged street by street, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, while explosions rocked the capital early Sunday.
“Several explosions in Darnytsky and Dniprovsky districts of the city. Services are extinguishing,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram shortly after air raid warnings sounded in Kyiv and several other cities.
“There are currently no dead from missile strikes on infrastructure. One wounded was hospitalised.”
Ukrainian officials said railway infrastructure was targeted in the first strikes on Kyiv since April 28 when a Russian missile killed a producer for the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Separately, at least 11 civilians were reported killed in the Lugansk region where Severodonetsk is located, the nearby Donetsk region and in the southern city of Mykolaiv.
“The situation in Severodonetsk, where street fighting continues, remains extremely difficult,” Zelensky said in his daily address Saturday evening.
Cities in the eastern Donbas area at the heart of the Russian offensive were under “constant air strikes, artillery and missile fire” but Ukrainian forces were holding their ground, he said.
Severodonetsk is the largest city still in Ukrainian hands in the Lugansk region of the Donbas, where Russian forces have been gradually advancing in recent weeks after retreating or being repelled from other areas, including around the capital Kyiv.
A city divided
Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said Sunday that Russian forces had lost ground in the city.
“The Russians were in control of about 70 percent of the city, but have been forced back over the past two days,” he said on Telegram.
“The city is divided in two. They are afraid to move freely around the city.”
Russia’s army on Saturday claimed some Ukrainian military units were withdrawing from Severodonetsk but Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said Ukrainian forces were fighting to retake the city.
“We are currently doing everything necessary to re-establish total control” of the city, he said in an interview broadcast on Telegram.
For its part, Moscow claims to have destroyed two Ukrainian command centres and six ammunition depots in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
“Ukrainian forces are successfully slowing down Russian operations to encircle Ukrainian positions in Luhansk (region) as well as Russian frontal assaults in Severodonetsk through prudent and effective local counterattacks in Severodonetsk”, the US-based Institute for the Study of War said in an assessment late Saturday.
‘Put Russia in its place’
Tens of thousands of people have been killed, millions forced to flee and towns turned into rubble since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an all-out assault on his pro-Western neighbour on February 24.
Western powers have imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Russia and supplied arms to Ukraine, but divisions have emerged on how to react.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday Putin had committed a “fundamental error” but that Russia should not be “humiliated” so that a diplomatic solution could be found.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted Saturday by saying such calls “only humiliate France” and any country taking a similar position.
“It is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place,” he said.
Despite diplomatic efforts, the conflict has raged in the south and east of the country.
Ukraine reported two victims from a Russian missile strike on Odessa in the southwest, without specifying if they were dead or wounded.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had struck a “deployment point for foreign mercenaries” in the village of Dachne in the Odessa region.
It also claimed a missile strike in the northeastern Sumy region on an artillery training centre with “foreign instructors”.
Fears over food
Apart from the human toll, the conflict has caused widespread damage to Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials reported a large Orthodox wooden church, a popular pilgrim site, was on fire and blamed Russia.
Moscow continues to prove “its inability to be part of the civilised world,” Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said in a statement.
Russia’s defence ministry blamed “Ukrainian nationalists” for the blaze.
Russian troops now occupy a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, according to Kyiv, and Moscow has imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports, sparking fears of a global food crisis. Ukraine and Russia are among the top wheat exporters in the world.
The United Nations said it was leading intense negotiations with Russia to allow Ukraine’s grain harvest to leave the country.
Putin said Friday there was “no problem” to export grain from Ukraine, via Kyiv- or Moscow-controlled ports or even through Central Europe.
The UN has warned that African countries, which normally import over half of their wheat consumption from Ukraine and Russia, face an “unprecedented” crisis.
Food prices in Africa have already exceeded those in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the 2008 food riots.
The head of the African Union, Senegalese President Macky Sall, said Saturday he intended to visit Ukraine after meeting Putin the day before to discuss the wheat shortage.
‘Game of survival’
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov repeated the government’s appeal for the swift delivery of heavy artillery Saturday.
If Kyiv receives requested equipment, he said, “I cannot forecast definitely what month we will kick them out, but I hope — and it’s absolutely a realistic plan — to do it this year.”
Away from the battlefield, Ukraine will be fighting for victory over Wales in Sunday’s play-off final as they aim to reach their first football World Cup since 1958.
“We all understand that the game with Wales will no longer be about physical condition or tactics, it will be a game of survival,” said Ukraine player Oleksandr Zinchenko.
“Everyone will fight to the end and give their all, because we will play for our country.”
The US Congress prepared Thursday to approve a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine in the latest fulfillment of President Joe Biden’s promise of unwavering support for Kyiv as it fights off the Russian invasion.
Passage of the money is an unusually bipartisan move for harshly divided Washington.
“Aid for Ukraine goes far beyond charity,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
“The future of American security and core strategic interests will be shaped by the outcome of this fight,” he added, hours before Congress’ upper chamber was expected to vote through the package easily.
Contained in the bundle is $6 billion earmarked to allow Ukraine to boost its armored vehicle inventory and air defense system.
Nearly $9 billion is set aside to help with Ukrainian “continuity of government,” among other items, including humanitarian aid.
Congress already approved almost $14 billion for Ukraine in mid-March, only weeks after Russia’s invasion.
But as fighting has shifted away from the capital and to the eastern and southern parts of the country, Biden has been calling for another round of financial support for weeks.
The US president has often repeated his desire to lead in what he depicts as a great struggle of democracy against authoritarianism. But funds already designated for Ukraine support were about to run out, he said.
The US House of Representatives already approved the $40 billion package — the equivalent to the 2020 GDP of Cameroon — last week.
‘Pay Now Or Pay Later’
Such bipartisan support is rare in a Congress often divided right down party lines.
“When it comes to Putin, either we pay now or we pay later,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who earlier in the conflict took to Twitter to call for the Russian president to be assassinated.
Though it originally stuck to sending weapons seen as defensive, Washington has moved on to supplying artillery, helicopters and drones to the Ukrainian army, whose troops are trained to use them in the United States or in third countries before heading back to deploy them at the front.
Another $9 billion of the latest package is also set to help the United States re-supply its own weapons back-stock.
And the Senate further fulfilled its traditional role as the president’s ally in foreign affairs Wednesday morning by confirming Bridget Brink, a career diplomat, as the next US ambassador to Ukraine.
The US hopes its diplomats will be able to return to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, where Washington closed its embassy days before the Russian invasion, “by the end of the month”, embassy charge d’affaires Kristina Kvien said Monday.
“We very much hope that conditions will permit us to go back to Kyiv by the end of the month,” Kvien said at a press conference in the western city of Lviv.
The US closed its embassy in Kyiv on February 14, ten days before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, and moved its diplomats westwards.
Kvien said she and her staff were “working day and night in Poland” to “help Ukraine win this war.”
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi voiced support for Ukraine’s “fight for freedom” at a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky on a visit to Kyiv, US and Ukrainian officials said on Sunday.
“We believe that we are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom… Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi told Zelensky, according to a video from the Ukrainian presidency.
Zelensky tweeted: “Thank you to the United States for helping protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our state”.
“The US is leading strong support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression,” he said.
The trip by a Congressional delegation had not been previously announced.
“Our delegation proudly delivered the message that additional American support is on the way, as we work to transform President Biden’s strong funding request into a legislative package,” Pelosi’s office said in a statement.
US President Joe Biden last week proposed a huge $33-billion (31-billion euro) package for arming and supporting Ukraine.
Biden also outlined proposed new laws to allow using luxury assets stripped from Russian oligarchs to compensate Ukraine for the destruction wreaked by the invading Russians.
“When we return to the United States, we will do so further informed, deeply inspired and ready to do what is needed to help the Ukrainian people as they defend democracy for their nation and for the world,” Pelosi’s statement continued.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv last month.
Russia confirmed Friday that it carried out an airstrike on Kyiv during a visit by the UN’s secretary-general, the first such attack on the Ukrainian capital in nearly two weeks, and in which a journalist also died.
Vera Gyrych, a producer for the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was killed when a Russian missile hit the building where she lived, the media group said.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had deployed “high-precision, long-range air-based weapons” that “destroyed the production buildings of the Artyom missile and space enterprise in Kyiv”.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a stronger global response to Thursday’s strikes, which immediately followed his talks in the city with UN chief Antonio Guterres.
“It is unfortunate, but such a deliberate and brutal humiliation of the United Nations by Russia has gone unanswered,” he said.
Guterres had also toured Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs where Moscow is alleged to have committed war crimes. Russia denies killing civilians.
Germany said the “inhumane” attack showed Russian President Vladimir Putin has “no respect whatsoever for international law”.
The powerful blast ripped out walls and doors, leaving piles of rubble on the ground.
“I think Russians aren’t afraid of anything, not even the world’s judgement,” Anna Hromovych, deputy director of a heavily damaged clinic, told AFP as she and others were cleaning up the devastation on Friday.
Putin is nevertheless due to attend November’s G20 summit, President Joko Widodo of host nation Indonesia said. Zelensky also has been invited.
The United States repeated its strong opposition to Putin’s invitation, with a State Department spokesperson saying “it can’t be business as usual” after the invasion.
Ukrainian prosecutors said they had pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes and were investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in Bucha, where dozens of bodies in civilian clothes were found following Moscow’s retreat.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Friday briefly choked with emotion as he described the destruction in Ukraine and slammed Putin’s “depravity”.
Three months into an invasion that failed in its short-term aim of capturing Kyiv, Russia is now intensifying operations in the eastern Donbas region and tightening its stranglehold on the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian authorities said they planned to evacuate civilians on Friday from the besieged Azovstal steel plant, the last holdout in Mariupol where hundreds are sheltering with Ukrainian troops.
But Denis Pushilin, leader of the breakaway eastern region of Donetsk, accused Ukrainian forces of “acting like outright terrorists”.
He said Ukraine was holding civilians hostage in the steel plant, claiming that people were free to leave any time.
From Mariupol’s badly damaged port zone, AFP on Friday heard heavy shelling coming from Azovstal during a media trip organised by the Russian army, with explosions only a few seconds apart in the early afternoon.
With the war claiming thousands of lives, Kyiv has admitted Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the Donbas region.
But Ukrainian forces, armed by Western allies, also reported small victories along the frontline.
A senior NATO official said Russia had made only “minor” and “uneven” advances in their attempt to encircle enemy positions as Ukrainian forces counter-attacked.
The Pentagon said the Kremlin’s eastern offensive was “behind schedule” as air strikes were failing to facilitate lightning ground offensives.
In the region of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces said they had recaptured a “strategically important” village, Ruska Lozova.
But in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, civilians continued to live in fear.
One resident, Antonina, told AFP she returned home to find a rocket had smashed through her building and lodged in her bathroom.
“When I came home, everything was destroyed… It was scary,” she told AFP.
More Western armaments are due to arrive in Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden on Thursday seeking billions of dollars from Congress to boost supplies.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the United States wanted the war to end as soon as possible — but that much of the US security assistance would last well beyond October.
Russia’s defence ministry in recent days has said its forces have struck Ukrainian military sites hosting Western-supplied weapons and ammunition, a claim denied by a senior NATO official.
‘We Will Leave’
Britain said it was deploying about 8,000 troops for exercises across eastern Europe in a show of Western allies’ resolve against Russian aggression.
Fears of the conflict spilling over into neighbouring Moldova’s pro-Kremlin breakaway region of Transnistria have soared this week after explosions, shots and a drone sighting were reported.
“I don’t know what to do, I’ve never lived through a situation like this,” Victoria, a 36-year-old medical assistant who works in Transnistria, told AFP.
“If things change we will leave, obviously.”
A NATO official said the presence of 1,500 to 2,000 Russian troops in Transnistria was a “concern” as they could distract Ukrainian forces and had stronger capabilities than Moldova’s army.
The cost of the war has reverberated across Europe, with Brussels publishing data showing that output growth for the eurozone has slowed to 0.2 percent, while consumer prices have leapt by a record 7.4 percent in April.
But that pales in comparison to the plight of Ukrainians, more than 5.4 million who have fled their country since the invasion, according to UN estimates.
Another 7.7 million others are displaced internally, the International Organization for Migration said, appealing for $514 million to help.
Ukraine said Wednesday that Russian forces had pushed deeper into the east of the country and captured several villages as part of Moscow’s offensive to take control of Donbas.
Moscow said earlier this month it was withdrawing its invading troops from around the capital Kyiv to focus its military efforts on capturing Donetsk and Lugansk in east Ukraine.
The defence ministry said that Russian forces had pushed out Kyiv’s army from Velyka Komyshuvakha and Zavody in the northeastern Kharkiv region and had gained control over Zarichne and Novotoshkivske in Donetsk.
Zarichne is just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the regional hub of Kramatorsk, where Russian attacks this month on a train station shuttling residents to safety in the east left dozens dead.
The defence ministry cautioned that Russian forces were “continuing an offensive in the direction of Nyzhnye and Orikhiv” in the central Zaporizhzhia region.
Pro-Russian separatists have controlled the Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014 when the Kremlin annexed the Crimean peninsula following street demonstrations that ousted Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader.
Russia has said the offensive in the east would create land border between the separatist-held territory and the Black Sea peninsula.