Ukraine Urges U.S. To Provide 'Fire Parity' With Russia As Struggle In East Worsens

Ukraine's top general has told his U.S. counterpart that his country desperately needs "fire parity" with Russia to "stabilize" the difficult situation in the east, where Kyiv's forces have suffered setbacks against Moscow's troops backed by powerful artillery bombardments.

"We discussed the operational situation and the delivery flow of international technical assistance," General Valeriy Zaluzhniy wrote in an online posting after holding a phone call on June 24 with General Mark Milley, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Kyiv has received billions of dollars in aid from its Western partners since Moscow's unprovoked invasion began on February 24.

But they say much more is needed as Russia, bolstered by an advantage in artillery power, continued its grinding advance focused on encircling Ukraine's last pocket of resistance in the eastern Luhansk region.

Hirske, a key district south of the city of Lysychansk, was "fully occupied" by Russian forces as of the morning on June 24, local officials said on television, as Ukrainian forces were also about to abandon their last positions in the city of Syevyerodonetsk.

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"Unfortunately, as of today...the entire Hirske district is occupied," Hirske's municipal head, Oleksiy Babchenko, said on television. "There are some insignificant, local battles going on at the outskirts, but the enemy has entered."

The loss of Hirske and several other settlements around it leaves Lysychansk, some 35 kilometers to the north, in danger of being surrounded from three sides by advancing Russian forces.

A regional official said early on June 24 that Ukrainian forces were pulling out of Syevyerodonetsk in the face of Russia's continued onslaught, which would make Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River, the last major Ukrainian-controlled city in Luhansk.

Russia was on the verge of capturing Syevyerodonetsk following weeks of house-to-house battles against Ukrainian defenders, who were gradually dislodged by relentless heavy artillery fire that has turned the city into ruins.

"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense," Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk region military administration, said on television.

He said troops had already received the order to move to new positions, but didn't indicate if they had already done so or where they were going.

Hayday also wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Russia had taken control of the village of Mykolayivka, located near a key highway to Lysychansk, where Ukrainian troops managed to repel a Russian attack on the southern outskirts of the city.

A U.S. military official told reporters in a briefing that, while Washington did not want to downplay Ukrainian losses in lives or property, recent gains by Russian forces appear to have been "limited."

"What [Ukrainian troops] are doing is putting themselves in a position where they can better defend themselves."

"The Russians are just eking out inch by inch of territory here. And I think it's important to reflect on the cost that Russia has paid for this very small, very incremental gain," the official added.

Four months after the start of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, the fierce fighting has stretched both sides' personnel and equipment resources to the limit, with Kyiv repeatedly pleading with the West for more heavy weapons and Russia facing increasing difficulties in bringing qualified personnel to the front line.

Britain's Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 24 that a Russian pilot captured earlier this month after his plane was shot down confessed to his Ukrainian captors that he was a retired Air Force major now working as a mercenary for the Vagner Group, a private Russian military company with ties to the Kremlin.

British intelligence suggested that the use of retired personnel and private contractors in air operations indicated a shortage of trained Russian aircrews.

That, the bulletin said, could be the consequence of a combination of Russia’s insufficient numbers of suitably trained personnel and its combat losses. Furthermore, the use of commercial GPS systems on Vagner's aircraft indicated a lack of up-to-date avionics equipment, it said.

The White House late on June 23 announced additional military aid for Kyiv, including four more HIMARS long-range multiple-rocket launchers, tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, and patrol boats. The value of the package was $450 million, White House spokesman John Kirby said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the United States for the continued military support.

"We're grateful to [U.S. President Joe Biden] and the American people for the decision to provide another $450 million defense aid package to Ukraine," he wrote on Twitter on June 24.

"This support, including additional HIMARS, is now more important than ever. By joint efforts we will free Ukrainian land from the Russian aggressor!" he concluded.

However, two officials with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence assessments told CNN that Russian forces were slowly gaining an advantage in eastern Ukraine. The Russians have learnt from mistakes made earlier in the invasion, and are now better coordinating air and ground attacks and improving logistics and supply lines, the officials said.

One victory Kyiv celebrated on June 23 was the announcement by EU leaders meeting in Brussels that the bloc had 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."

"This is a victory," a smiling Zelenskiy said in a brief video posted to his Instagram channel, noting that Ukraine had waited 30 years for this moment.

"We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, and then we can rest," he added.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, CNN, and TASS