More than three months after the start of the war launched by Moscow on February 24, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz asked Russian President Vladimir Putin – during a telephone interview – to start “negotiations direct talks” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. They also demanded the release of the 2,500 Ukrainian fighters who had taken refuge in the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol (south-east) and who surrendered to the Russian forces.

The Russian president assured for his part that Russia remained “open to a resumption of dialogue” with kyiv to resolve the armed conflict, while peace negotiations with Ukraine have been at a standstill since March, according to the Kremlin.

On the military level, the Russian vice in the Donbass mining basin is tightening, especially around Severodonetsk where “the enemy carried out assault operations”, according to a report by the Ukrainian army general staff published on Sunday.

“Russia has used all its means to seize Severodonetsk or to prevent any communication between the region and Ukraine,” said Sergii Gaïdaï, the governor of the Lugansk region, on his Telegram account on Saturday evening. “Next week will be very tough”, he admitted, considering however that the Russian forces “will not be able to achieve everything they plan in the near future”.

“The Russians have brought a lot of means to take the city by storm but cannot do it yet”, assured for his part the mayor of Severodonetsk, Olexander Stryuk. “We think the city will resist,” he insisted.

He warned of the worsening health situation in this city of 100,000 inhabitants before the war.

The “constant bombardments” greatly complicate the supply – especially of drinking water – of the city, which has been without electricity for more than two weeks, he wrote on his Telegram account on Saturday evening. The activity of the city’s “humanitarian aid center” has been suspended, he said.

– “Heavy losses” –

“The (Russian) army is simply destroying the city,” Serguii Gaïdaï had previously said. According to him, the Russian army entered the suburbs of the city where it suffered “heavy losses”.

He was responding to a police official from the pro-Russian separatist republic of Lugansk, quoted by the Ria Novosti agency, who said on Friday that “the city of Severodonetsk is currently surrounded” and that Ukrainian troops were trapped there.

The leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov claimed for his part on Saturday evening on Telegram that “Severodonetsk is under our total control (…) The city has been liberated”.

A little further west, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed on Saturday the takeover of the key locality of Lyman – which opens the way to the major cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, in the Donbass.

The territorial defense of this republic “self-proclaimed” by the pro-Russian separatists had indicated on Friday on Telegram to have “taken complete control” of Lyman, with “the support” of the Russian army.

On Sunday, the Ukrainian army indicated that the regrouping of Russian forces “is getting stronger” in this sector.

President Zelensky acknowledged that “the situation in this region of Donbass (was) very, very difficult”, with intensive artillery and missile strikes. But he had estimated that “if the occupiers think that Lyman and Severodonetsk will be theirs, they are mistaken. The Donbass will be Ukrainian”.

After the unsuccessful offensive on kyiv and Kharkiv (northeast) at the start of the war, Russian forces concentrated in eastern Ukraine, with the stated objective of completely seizing the partially controlled Donbass since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow.

While Ukraine, a major agricultural power, can no longer export its cereals due to the blocking of its ports, Vladimir Putin assured, during his conversation with MM. Macron and Scholz, that his country was “ready” to help an “unfettered” export of grain from Ukraine.

“Russia is ready to help find options for unhindered export of grain, including Ukrainian grain from ports on the Black Sea,” said a Kremlin statement released after the telephone conversation.

According to Mr. Putin, the difficulties related to food deliveries were caused by “a wrong economic and financial policy of Western countries, as well as anti-Russian sanctions” imposed by these countries.

On Saturday in Mariupol, a southeastern city that the Russians pounded for three months before finally seizing it last week, a first cargo boat entered the port, according to the official Russian news agency TASS quoting a door -word of the Pro-Russian Port Authority.

The Ukrainian Navy reacted on Facebook calling the announcement “manipulative” because according to it, “while continuing to disregard the norms of international maritime law, Russia’s ship groups continue to block civil navigation in the waters of the seas Black and Azov”.

During the telephone interview, Vladimir Putin also considered “dangerous to continue to flood Ukraine with Western weapons”, warning against the risks of “further destabilization”, according to the Kremlin.

American media have claimed that Washington is preparing the delivery of long-range multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to kyiv, which is desperately asking for them to counter the deluge of Russian fire.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm the dispatch of the MLRS M270s – highly mobile modern vehicles with a firing range of 300 km – mentioned by the press. But he assured that the United States would continue to help Ukraine “win on the battlefield”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also reaffirmed his country’s support, “including helping to provide the necessary equipment”, in a telephone conversation with Mr Zelensky on Saturday, according to London.