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Putin threatens to hit new targets if long-range missiles are sent to Ukraine

An injured Ukrainian serviceman is evacuated to a hospital in the Donetsk oblast region, eastern Ukraine, on June 5. (Bernat Armangue/AP)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened a wider campaign of bombing and shelling Sunday should the United States send longer-range rockets to Ukraine, at the same time dismissing the advanced shorter-range missiles President Biden has already promised as “nothing new.”

Putin said new targets that have yet to be attacked by Russia would be hit if Ukraine received longer-range missiles, but did not say which ones. Biden has not offered longer-range weapons and is not expected to do so. He has insisted that Ukraine not use the shorter-range weapons systems to attack Russia within its borders.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces were anxiously awaiting delivery of the promised M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, commonly known as HIMARS, hoping they might help turn the tide in their attempt to hold on to at least a portion of the area where the fiercest battles, street-to-street, now rage in and around the city of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine.

What to know about Severodonetsk, the Ukrainian city Russia wants to capture

Ukrainian forces reported incremental progress over the weekend in that struggle, saying they were in control of half of the strategically and symbolically important city as opposed to the 30 percent reported earlier this week. The claims could not be independently verified.

Even if Ukraine is making gains there, Russia is said to control some 80 percent of the wider area, Donbas, where it established two peoples republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, which it claimed to be rescuing when it invaded the region in 2014. The current battle is a continuation of fighting between the two sides since then.

Russian forces have pounded Severodonetsk with artillery, wreaking immense damage in the east that is inflicting massive casualties on Ukrainian forces.

Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Donetsk are three cities Russia needs to claim victory in Donbas and fully control the region. But the Donets river, which cuts across eastern Ukraine, continues to serve as an obstacle to Russian troops’ advance to Lysychansk, located on the other side of the river, and into Donetsk.

Russian forces were blowing up bridges to prevent Ukraine from bringing in reinforcements or aid, said Serhiy Haidai, the Luhansk regional governor. Both sides have struggled for control of the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, a vital supply route.

In a Telegram post on Sunday, Haidai said dozens of people had been rescued from the region where thousands of residents have fled but many remain holed up.

“Taken out of hell — 66 people were evacuated from Lysychansk, including six children,” he said. “Quietly. No announcement. We drove through bomb shelters.”

Photos of the evacuation showed personnel assisting the fleeing residents — many of them elderly — as they toted whatever belongings they could carry and boarded yellow buses with curtains covering the windows.

The situation is the new, bleak reality for Ukraine more than 100 days into the war, after shocking the world with early successes, most notably the defense of the capital, Kyiv. After that, Russia turned its full attention and might largely to the east.

Putin reminded Kyiv on Sunday that it is well within reach of destructive bombardment, if not capture. Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that missile strikes in Kyiv on Sunday morning destroyed tanks sent to Ukraine by supporting countries. The tanks and other equipment were stored at a repair facility on the outskirts of Kyiv, the ministry said.

Earlier Sunday, the mayor of the Ukrainian capital said two districts were hit, leaving one person hospitalized. The missiles were fired from Russian Tu-95 bombers over the Caspian Sea, according to preliminary information provided by Ukraine’s air force command.

It was the first time in more than a month that Russian missiles had targeted Kyiv.

Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said on a live Ukrainian television broadcast Sunday that one of the Kyiv strikes hit a military target while the other damaged civilian infrastructure. But he also denied Russia’s claims about tanks destroyed at the rail-car facility.

Ukraine has said new rocket systems sent by the United States are essential to repelling advances in the eastern part of the country, where Russian forces have been trying to encircle Severodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk, which Ukrainian officials were still evacuating over the weekend.

In an interview as reported by Tass, Putin was quoted as saying that those shipments would change nothing, as they would only be replacing rockets of the same range, 40 to 70 km (about 27 to 43 miles.) The missiles dispatched by the United States have a range of about 45 miles. U.S.-delivered M777 howitzers currently in use in Ukraine have a range of about 18 miles.

“There is nothing new about that,” Putin reportedly said.

But if longer-range systems are introduced, “We will draw appropriate conclusions from this and use our weapons, which we have enough of, to strike those objects that we have not yet struck,” Putin said. He didn’t specify where or what these new targets would be.

U.S. defends supplying advanced rocket systems to Ukraine

“The fuss around additional deliveries of weapons has only one goal — to drag out the armed conflict as far as possible,” Putin told the state-owned Russia-1 television channel, from which Tass took excerpts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited troops on the front line in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia, his office announced Sunday.

Zelensky’s office described the visit as a working trip during which he met with troops and police forces. Oleksandr Starukh, who leads the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, said nearly 60 percent of the area’s territory is “temporarily occupied by Russian troops, and fighting is underway in some parts,” according to Zelensky’s office.

The fighting cut electricity to 77 settlements in the region, according to Starukh, who noted that 2,700 infrastructure facilities had been destroyed, but 700 had been rebuilt.

Zelensky’s office said it had received reports that Russian forces in parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia had begun distributing Russian passports to residents and that a Moscow-backed administration occupying Zaporizhzhia signed a decree to “nationalize” property owned by the Ukrainian government.

Kim Bellware and Akilah Johnson reported from Washington, David Walker and Julian Duplain from London.