* Intensification of the Russian Luhansk offensive
* Moscow says it controls the Azovstal plant in Mariupol
* Russia suspends gas supplies to Finland
* The Russian army says it destroyed Western weapons in the Zhitomir region
by Pavel Polityuk, Terje Solsvik and Tom Balmforth
KYIV/OSLO, May 21 (Reuters) – Russia stepped up its offensive in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region on Saturday and decided to suspend gas supplies to Finland, risking escalating tensions with the West regarding the dispute over the payment of energy bills.
Moscow, which has put an end to weeks of resistance by the last Ukrainian fighters in the strategic city of Mariupol, in the south-east of the country, now seems to be carrying out a major attack on Luhansk, one of the two provinces of Donbass.
Even before the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists already controlled a large part of Luhansk and the neighboring province of Donetsk.
An end to the fighting Mariupol, the largest city Russia has so far conquered, could accelerate Moscow’s strategy of controlling Donbass and allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to post a rare victory after a series of setbacks. almost three months after the start of the Russian offensive.
Speaking on Ukrainian television, President Volodimir Zelensky said that ending the war would only be through diplomacy.
“For them, all these victories – the occupation of Crime or Donbass – are very temporary. And all this will be ours, since it is our territory,” he said.
The capture of Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim full control of the province and place it under the authority of the “People’s Republic of Luhansk”, proclaimed by pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and whose independence Vladimir Putin has recognized. just before the start of his “special operation” in Ukraine.
Full control of Mariupol would also give Russia access to the road linking the Crime Peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, with mainland Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Gada, declared Saturday in a message published on the social networks that Russia sought to destroy the town of Sievierodonetsk, one of the last strongholds held by the Ukrainian forces in this province.
“The shelling continues from morning to evening and also throughout the night,” he says in a video broadcast on Telegram.
Russia has been trying, since the failure of its offensive against Kyiv in mid-April, to seize Sievierodonetsk and its twin sister, Lychtchansk, on the other bank of the Siverskiy Donets river.
Russian energy giant Gazprom said on Saturday it had halted gas exports to Finland after the country refused Moscow’s demand for a ruble settlement in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed following the invasion. from Ukraine.
Gazprom had warned Finland on Friday that it was going to stop supplying it with natural gas as of Saturday morning, but Gasum, the Finnish public company responsible for importing and selling gas, the Helsinki government and the companies of the country had replied that they were ready to do without Russian hydrocarbons.
Moscow also cut off gas to Bulgaria and Poland last month, two countries also refusing to comply with Russia’s new payment terms despite most European supply contracts being denominated in euros or dollars.
Moscow’s gas decision comes as Finland and Sweden have applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a request prompted by Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. .
In addition to economic sanctions against Russia, Western countries have also intensified their arms deliveries to Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden also signed into law on Saturday to provide nearly US$40 billion in aid to Ukraine.
WESTERN WEAPONS DROPPED?
Since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, thousands of people have been killed, towns destroyed, and almost a third of Ukrainians have left their homes, including more than six million abroad.
The Russian military said on Saturday it destroyed a large shipment of Western weapons in Ukraine’s Zhitomir region, west of kyiv, using Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the sea. independently of this assertion.
The Russian Defense Minister also said Friday that his forces had full control of the Azovstal factory in Mariupol after the surrender of the last Ukrainian fighters, estimated by Moscow at 2,439.
On Saturday, President Volodimir Zelensky said the Ukrainian army had allowed these fighters to flee and save their lives. The Russian minister’s figures could not be immediately confirmed and the fate of the last combatants is unknown. (Reporting Natalia Zinets, Max Hunder, Tom Balmforth Kyiv and Reuters offices, Writing by Madeline Chambers, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Pullin; French version Claude Chendjou)