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Outgunned Ukrainians hail arrival of US heavy weapons as Russians press ahead

The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) fires the Army's new guided Multiple Launch Rocket System during testing at White Sands Missile Range. (U.S. Army)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Kyiv has announced the arrival of the first U.S. long-range weapons systems that the Ukrainian military has been waiting on for months, and the United States says it will send a new batch of military assistance including more rocket systems.

News of the arms shipments on June 23 came as Russian forces, backed by massive artillery power, pressed ahead with their offensive to completely encircle Ukraine’s last pocket of resistance in the Luhansk region.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on June 23 that High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) from the United States are now in Ukraine.

It was not immediately known when the HIMARS had entered the country or if they were already being used on the front line, but Kyiv hopes the artillery will help turn the tide in the war that began four months ago.

“Thank you to my U.S. colleague and friend Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for these powerful tools! Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them,” he said on Twitter.

The HIMARS is a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) developed for the U.S. military in the 1970s. Both Russia and Ukraine already operate MLRS systems, but the six-rocket HIMARS is more advanced, with a range of 80 kilometers and superior precision.

Kyiv has asked for 300 such systems, but Washington has only donated four so far. Germany will also send three such systems to Ukraine, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said on June 23.

The additional aid announced by the White House later on June 23 includes four HIMARS, tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, and patrol boats, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. The value of the package is $450 million, he said.

The announcement came after EU leaders meeting in Brussels formally agreed to take the “historic” step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership.

The move was hailed by the leaders of the two countries, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said there can be “no better sign of hope” for the citizens of the countries “in these troubled times.”

The announcements came as the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said its forces stopped an offensive of Russian troops in the direction of the southern outskirts of Lysychansk in the Luhansk region, forcing them to retreat.

“To resume the offensive, the occupiers are putting forward reserves,” the General Staff said late on June 23. “The Ukrainian defenders also stopped the enemy’s offensive near Borivsky.”

Fighting continued elsewhere, including near Bila Hora, Lysychansk, and Syevyerodonetsk. The military’s claims could not be independently verified.

The heavy use of artillery and the recent troop reinforcement was likely behind Russia’s improved military performance in the Luhansk cities of Lysycyhansk and its twin city Syevyerodonetsk, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin early on June 23.

Luhansk military Governor Serhiy Hayday said on June 23 that the villages of Loskutyvka and Rai-Oleksandryvka, south of Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk, have now fallen to the Russians.

He said Ukrainian forces continue to resist in Syevyerodonetsk and the nearby settlements of Zolote and Vovchoyrovka.

Hayday said Ukrainian forces are facing “massive” and relentless artillery attacks in Lysychansk and may need to retreat to avoid being cut off after Russian forces captured the two settlements to its south.

“In order to avoid encirclement, our command could order that the troops retreat to new positions,” Hayday said on national television. “All of Lysychansk is within reach of their fire. It is very dangerous in the city.”

But he said Lysychansk could still be reached by road, allowing civilian evacuations to continue. Russia’s TASS news agency had earlier cited Russia-backed separatists as saying the city was surrounded and cut off from supplies.

The fight for Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk is “entering a sort of fearsome climax,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Russia seeks to capture both Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up most of Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbas.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration, said Ukrainian forces control less than half of the Donetsk region, adding that more than 100 cities and villages within these areas had no gas or electricity.

Kyrylenko said that the 55 percent of Donetsk that is under Russian occupation is “completely destroyed.”

However, British intelligence noted in its bulletin that Russian efforts to achieve a deeper encirclement to take the Donetsk region west of Luhansk remain stalled.

Arestovych said in a video address that Russia launched the most intensive strikes in weeks on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, adding that they were aimed at “terrorizing the population.”

The shelling, which caused at least 10 deaths in the Kharkiv region over two days, was mean to “distract us and force us to divert troops” from the main battlefields in the Donbas, Arestovych said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a group of European newspapers that the defense intelligence service believes that Russia’s momentum in the war in Ukraine will slow in the next few months as its army exhausts its resources.

In the next few months, Britain’s intelligence service believes that Russia “could come to a point at which there is no longer any forward momentum because it has exhausted its resources,” Johnson was quoted as saying.

“Then we must help the Ukrainians to reverse the dynamic. I will argue for this at the Group of Seven (G7) summit,” he said.

The G7 summit, bringing together the heads of state of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, is scheduled to begin on June 26 in Germany.

“Inasmuch as the Ukrainians are in a position to start a counteroffensive, it should be supported with equipment that they demand from us,” he said.

A victory for Ukraine — or failure for Russia — would at least see Ukraine regain the status quo that was there before Russia invaded, he said.