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Narrower focus helps Russia make gains in Ukraine’s east

Ukrainian officials said they expect Russian forces to attempt a repeat of the devastating siege tactics they employed in Mariupol as they try to capture Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control.FINBARR O'REILLY/NYT

As the fourth month dawns in the war in Ukraine, the battle has narrowed to a 75-mile-wide sliver of land in the heart of the eastern Donbas region, where Russia’s concentrated firepower and shortened supply lines are helping its forces make progress toward a handful of key cities.

Moscow’s main immediate target remains Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control. Artillery barrages fired by Russian forces approaching from three sides have knocked out water and electrical supplies, driven residents into underground shelters, and, in the last 24 hours, killed at least six people, the regional government said Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials said they expect Russian forces to attempt a repeat of the devastating siege tactics they employed in the southeastern city of Mariupol, choking off Sievierodonetsk and other cities as they seek full control of Donbas.

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President Vladimir Putin issued an order to fast-track Russian citizenship for residents in parts of southern Ukraine largely held by his forces.

Putin’s decree applying to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions could allow Russia to strengthen its hold on territory that lies between eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists occupy some areas, and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.

Shrinking its objectives has allowed Moscow to make incremental gains closer to the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv, and other cities in the north. But military analysts and Western intelligence officials believe that Moscow’s forces would face brutal urban combat if they tried to fully capture Sievierodonetsk and that they would struggle to mount an offensive deeper inside Ukraine.

The intensified fighting, with each side trying to encircle the other and prevent entrapment, comes as Ukraine’s Western allies try to maintain pressure on Russia. Representatives from Finland and Sweden were in Turkey on Wednesday to meet with high-level officials in an effort to address President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opposition to the Nordic nations’ bids to join NATO. On the eve of the talks, Turkey laid out a series of security-related demands of Sweden, including that it abandon support for the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, an organization that Turkey and the European Union consider terrorists.

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In other developments:

— Putin visited wounded soldiers Wednesday and announced a raft of new social welfare measures and military benefits — an apparent effort to show Russians that he was aware times were tough. Pensions for nonworking seniors, along with the minimum wage, will be raised 10 percent in June, he said.

— In a sign that the Kremlin is trying to bolster its stretched military machine, Russian lawmakers agreed to scrap the age limit of 40 for individuals signing their first voluntary military contracts. A description of the bill on the parliament website indicated older recruits would be allowed to operate precision weapons or serve in engineering or medical roles.

— Germany plans to order coal-fired power plants that were due to be shut down to be placed in reserve as part of a plan to ensure the country can keep the lights on if supplies of natural gas from Russia are abruptly cut.

— Aiming to crack down on Russian oligarchs who have held on to their yachts and luxury villas in Europe despite facing sanctions, the European Union proposed Wednesday to make evading sanctions a criminal offense and to strengthen legal measures to confiscate assets.

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— Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that he would be willing to negotiate with Putin directly but said Moscow needs to retreat to the positions it held before the invasion and must show it’s ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.” “I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make,’’ Zelensky told leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by video link. He also said that Ukraine wants to drive Russian troops out of all captured areas. “Ukraine will fight until it reclaims all its territories,” Zelensky said. “It’s about our independence and our sovereignty.”

— China’s army held combat drills in the sea and airspace around Taiwan on Wednesday, a day after China and Russia held their first joint military exercise since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The Biden administration has accelerated its efforts to reshape Taiwan’s defense systems.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.