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Russian forces pummel key cities as they advance in eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian and American flags fly as Ukrainian soldiers guard a military checkpoint in Donbas on June 9. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Russian forces advanced toward the city of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, pummeling Ukrainian troops with artillery as Russian President Vladimir Putin compared his quest to that of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great.

Pro-Kremlin media reported that Russian forces were beginning a new stage of their assault on the east, with plans to soon take over Slovyansk and the nearby town of Kramatorsk. The Ukrainian military said in a statement that Russian forces are focusing the fight on Slovyansk, targeting villages on its outskirts even as Ukrainian forces fight to hold onto their territory.

The boom of artillery could be heard in both towns, and fierce street fighting continued in the nearby strategic city of Severodonetsk. Some 10,000 civilians remain stuck in that city, Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said in a televised interview.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the fight for Severodonetsk as “probably one of the most difficult throughout this war,” adding that the battle for control of the eastern Donbas region, which Putin has declared a key objective, was “being decided” there.

Meanwhile, a Russian-backed tribunal in the separatist Donetsk region has sentenced two Britons and a Moroccan man to death, Russian state media reported Thursday. The trio represents the first foreign fighters to be sentenced since the start of the war in late February.

‘They’re in hell’: Hail of Russian artillery tests Ukrainian morale

The men — Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner of Britain and Brahim Saadoune of Morocco — were charged with working as foreign mercenaries in the self-declared breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, which Moscow recognized as independent on the eve of the invasion. The court in which they were tried is not internationally recognized.

The three fighters will have 30 days to appeal; if a pardon is granted, the death penalty can be replaced with a 25-year prison sentence. Executions in the DPR are carried out by firing squad, and the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the men would be shot.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry claimed Thursday that it had launched a successful counterattack against Russian forces around the key city of Kherson and reclaimed some of the territory it had lost in the southern region.

“As a result of a successful counterattack by Ukraine’s defenders on the Kherson front, the occupiers lost part of the temporarily occupied territories and suffered losses in manpower and equipment,” the ministry said in a Telegram post.

The ministry did not provide more specifics on which areas it was referring to, and The Washington Post could not independently verify the claims. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in its latest intelligence assessment that “Russian forces are intensifying their operations in northwestern Kherson Oblast in response to recent Ukrainian counterattacks.”

The mayor of embattled Severodonetsk said the humanitarian situation in the city was worsening, with fierce fighting and no electricity or water services and little food.

“For now, evacuation is impossible,” Stryuk said in a television interview, describing how the main bridge out of the city to nearby Lysychansk was being shelled and infrastructure destroyed.

Tensions continue to rise over a looming global food crisis, with top U.N. officials working on a deal to export Ukrainian and Russian food products. The foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey said they held “substantial” talks on opening a shipping corridor for wheat from Ukraine but did not announce any agreement.

The European Union said Thursday it would donate the equivalent of about $220 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, as an official from the 27-country bloc visited a suburb of Kyiv. The E.U. said in a news release that the aid was necessary “in light of the soaring humanitarian needs in Ukraine.”

As the war rages in the country’s east and an assault on Slovyansk appears to loom ever closer, an increasingly eerie atmosphere has descended upon this small city, where water remains shut off due to a military strike on nearby infrastructure.

On Thursday, an air raid siren wailed nonstop in the background as a young woman who identified herself only as Katya played her violin in front of a boarded up grocery store — her case open on the ground in hopes passersby might spare her some change.

Former factory workers lined up on the sidewalk to sell vegetables they picked from their own gardens, their only chance to make money after their work dried up early on in the war. Soldiers roamed the streets — some wounded, others stocking up on snacks before heading back to the front lines.

Downtown, civilians rushed to remove books, documents and equipment from the city’s library — “in case we get bombed,” a 62-year-old librarian named Tatyana explained as she loaded materials into a van. A sign hung from a door on the side of the building announcing that the humanitarian volunteers who once worked there are no longer handing out any aid.

Slovyansk Mayor Vadym Lyakh said in a TV interview that Russians have been threatening an attack on his city for a month and that “the danger has persisted ever since.”

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that plans are in place to train Ukrainian soldiers on how to use multiple-launch rocket artillery. Ukrainian military officials and ground troops have bemoaned delays in Western military aid to the country. They said foreign powers were sitting on crucial military equipment as Russian forces battered Ukrainian forces, causing massive casualties and forcing Ukrainians to retreat from certain positions across Donbas.

Ukraine suffers on battlefield while pleading for U.S. arms

Milley’s comments raised the likelihood that more of the weapons could be sent to Ukraine. The pending arrival of further military aid is expected to significantly bolster the outgunned Ukrainians’ ability to push back against Russian forces.

Civilians and soldiers here say the assistance cannot come soon enough. At a checkpoint not far from the front line, an American flag waves beneath a Ukrainian one — a nod to the Ukrainian troops’ reliance on U.S. support in their fight against Russia.

On Wednesday, artillery struck a school in the city of Bakhmut, where Russian forces are also increasingly focusing their military might. The remnants of books from its destroyed library lay scattered across the ground.

Nelya Puzina, 66, walked through the aftermath as she assessed the damage, a look of horror and fear on her face.

“We are suffering here, living in a nightmare, waking up from convulsions,” Puzina said. “We are praying for weapons.”

“Please give us a weapon,” she added, or Putin “will wipe us off the face of the Earth.”

Ilyushina reported from Riga. Heidi Levine in Bakhmut; Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv; Dan Lamothe, Cate Cadell and Reis Thebault in Washington; Adela Suliman in London; and Annabelle Chapman in Paris contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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