Fighting rages in eastern Ukraine as NATO pushes expansion

The two days of talks in the Swiss city of Lugano heard that rebuilding the war-ravaged country is estimated to cost at least $750 billion.

This handout picture taken and released by the Ukraine's State Emergency Service on 1 July 2022, shows a firefighter putting out the fire in a residents building hit by a missile strike in Ukrainian district of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi outside Odesa, killing at least 16 and 30 injuring. Picture: Handout / UKRAINE EMERGENCY MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE / AFP

SLOVIANSK - Fighting raged on Tuesday in and around Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as Russian troops tried to build on recent battlefield gains, while NATO pressed ahead with Finland and Sweden's momentous membership bids.

With the war well into its fifth month, Kyiv's allies committed on Tuesday to supporting Ukraine through what is likely to be a lengthy and expensive recovery, agreeing on the need for broad reforms to boost transparency and tackle corruption.

The two days of talks in the Swiss city of Lugano heard that rebuilding the war-ravaged country is estimated to cost at least $750 billion.

But on the battlefield the conflict continued to wreak devastation, with the Ukrainian president's office reporting Russian shelling and missile strikes in several regions overnight.

Kremlin forces were pounding their next key target, the city of Sloviansk in Donetsk, with "massive" shelling, the city's mayor said on Tuesday.

At least two people were killed and seven others wounded in strikes that targeted the city's central market, authorities said.

Donetsk is the southwestern half of the Donbas which, unlike the northeastern half -Lugansk -, has not been almost entirely captured by Russia.

Russian bombardments have killed at least six people and injured another 19 since Sunday in Sloviansk, which had a pre-war population of around 100,000.

In Moscow, the defence ministry reported that Russian forces had targeted the city of Kharkiv with "high-precision" weapons over the past 24 hours, killing up to 150 Ukrainian servicemen.

Russia also said it was investigating the torture of Russian soldiers held prisoner in Ukraine that were recently released as part of a prisoner swap.

'FIGHTING CONTINUES'

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland hailed Tuesday as "historic" when they kicked off accession procedures for the two countries that will expand the military alliance to 32 members.

"The membership of both Finland and Sweden will not only contribute to our own security but to the collective security of the alliance," said Finland's Pekka Haavisto, after protocols were signed launching the required ratification process.

Sweden and Finland both announced their intention to drop decades of military non-alignment and become part of NATO in the wake of Russia invading Ukraine in February.

After abandoning its initial war aim of capturing Kyiv following tough Ukrainian resistance, Russia has since focused its efforts on securing control of the Donbas.

Ukraine said its forces were still defending "a small part" of Lugansk province, despite Moscow saying its troops were now in full control there after capturing the strategic city of Lysychansk, near the border with Donetsk.

The fall of Lysychansk on Sunday, a week after the Ukrainian army also retreated from the neighbouring city of Severodonetsk, frees up Russian forces to advance on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Donetsk.

"Fighting continues on the administrative borders of the region," the Ukrainian president's office said on Tuesday.

In a sign Moscow was trying to consolidate supply lines for its ongoing push, Ukraine's armed forces said Russian troops in Lugansk were "taking measures" to restore transport infrastructure behind the fighting lines.

'PROVOCATIONS'

Russian forces heading west were also closing in on the small city of Siversk -- which lies between Lysychansk and Sloviansk - after days of shelling there.

Two Ukrainian Red Cross minibuses were heading there to evacuate willing civilians, according to AFP reporters on the ground.

To the southwest, in the Moscow-occupied Kherson region, Russia's troops were deploying helicopters and various artillery to try to stem Ukrainian counter-attacks.

"Ukrainian aviation and missile and artillery units continue to strike enemy depots and invaders' concentrations, in particular in the Kherson region," Ukraine's armed forces said.

The intensifying battles in southern Ukraine come as Kremlin-installed authorities in Kherson announced that an official from Russia's powerful FSB security services had taken over control of the regional government there.

Kherson city, which lies close to Moscow-annexed Crimea, was the first major city to fall to Russian forces in February.

Moscow has since launched a campaign of so-called Russification, trying to introduce the ruble, giving out Russian passports and opening a first Russian bank at the end of June.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been reiterating calls for more weapons from the West so Kyiv can keep up the resistance and its counter-offensives to regain lost territories.

Appearing by video on Tuesday at an annual forum hosted by The Economist magazine, he predicted Belarus -- an ally of Moscow -- would not be drawn into the war but "provocations" by its northern neighbour was likely to continue.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said on Saturday his army had intercepted missiles fired at his country by Ukrainian forces last week.

Meanwhile, as the meeting of Ukraine's allies in Switzerland ended, leaders from some 40 countries signed the Lugano Declaration pinpointing principles for rebuilding Ukraine.

"Our work prepares for the time after the war even as the war is still raging," said Swiss President and co-host Ignazio Cassis.