Ukrainian troops sit on an armoured vehicle as they move back from the frontline near the city of Slovyansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 1, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Kyiv, Ukraine: Britain pledged on Thursday to send sophisticated medium-range rocket systems to Ukraine, joining the United States and Germany in equipping the embattled nation with advanced weapons for shooting down aircraft and knocking out artillery.

Also, Finance Minister Mikael Damberg and Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said Sweden will provide Ukraine with more economic aid and military equipment, including anti-ship missiles, rifles and anti-tank weapons, .

“The proposals that are submitted (to parliament) mean that allocated funds for the central government budget will increase by SEK 1.0 billion ($102 million) in 2022,” the Nordic country’s finance ministry said in a statement.

“In solidarity with Ukraine, and as part of the international response to Russia’s actions, the government sees a continuing need to support Ukraine,” it said.

Sweden in February announced it would send military materiel including 5,000 anti-tank weapons, helmets and body armour to Ukraine, and in March announced it would send another 5,000 anti-tank weapons.

Western arms have been critical to Ukraine’s success in stymieing Russia’s much larger and better-equipped military during a war now in its 99th day. But as Russian forces closed in on a key city in recent days, the Ukrainian government said its fighters needed better rocket launchers to prevail.

Russian forces continued to pound towns and cities overnight and to tighten their grip on the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk. The UK Defense Ministry reported that Russia had captured most of the city, one of two in Luhansk province that had remained under Ukrainian control.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK would send an unspecified number of M270 launchers, which can fire precision-guided rockets up to 80km (50 miles). Ukrainian troops will be trained in the UK to use the equipment, he said.

The British government says the decision to provide the launchers was coordinated closely with the US government, which said Wednesday that it would supply High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems to Ukraine.

The two missile systems are similar, though the American one has wheels while the British one — also US-built — runs on tracks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for more and better weapons and sometimes accused the West of moving too slowly in providing them. After Western-supplied arms helped Ukraine fend off Russian attempts to storm the capital, Moscow shifted its focus to seizing all of eastern Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.

Military analysts think Russia is hoping to overrun the Donbas before any weapons that might turn the tide arrive. It will take at least three weeks to get the precision US weapons and trained troops onto the battlefield, the Pentagon said. But Defense Undersecretary Colin Kahl said he believes they will arrive in time to make a difference in the fight.

Diplomatic boost

Kyiv also is set to get a diplomatic boost with the formal installation of a new US ambassador to Ukraine. US Ambassador Bridget Brink was set to hand her credentials to Zelenskyy on Thursday.

Brink will be Washington’s first ambassador in Kyiv since former US President Donald Trump abruptly forced out Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in 2019. She later became a key figure in the first impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Ahead of her Senate confirmation last month, Brink promised senators she would work to make Russia’s attacks of Ukraine a “strategic failure.’’ Her work in Kyiv is expected to focus on coordinating Western weapon shipments.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Moscow does not trust assurances that Ukraine will not use its new rocket launchers to fire on Russian territory. “We believe that the US is deliberately and diligently pouring fuel on the fire,’’ he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Ukraine’s repeated push for more weapons was a “direct provocation intended to draw the West into the fighting.’’ He warned that US-supplied multiple rocket launchers would raise the risk of an expanded conflict.

Bombardment of Donbas

Meanwhile, Russian forces kept up their bombardment of the Donbas and other parts of Ukraine while ground troops made an inching advance in the east,

A regional governor said Russian forces now control 80% of Sievierodonetsk, a city that is key to Moscow’s efforts to complete its capture of the Donbas. Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists have fought in the eastern region for eight years, and the separatists held swaths of territory before the Russian attacks.

The only other city in Luhansk province that the Russians have not yet captured, Lysychansk, is still fully under Ukrainian control, he said, but is likely to be the next target. The two cities are separated by a river.

Moscow’s forces also stormed the town of Komyshuvakha in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, large parts of which are under Russian control, the Ukrainian General Staff said Thursday.

In the western Lviv region, a Russian missile hit rail lines that were a key conduit for supplies of Western weapons and other supplies, officials said.

Zelenskyy has said Ukraine was losing between 60 and 100 soldiers a day in the fighting.

He turned the focus to children in his nightly video address, saying 243 of them have been killed in the war, 446 have been wounded and 139 are missing. The real numbers could be higher, he added, as his government doesn’t have a full picture of areas under Russian occupation.

Zelenskyy also said 200,000 children are among the Ukrainians who have been forcefully taken to Russia and dispersed across that vast country: ``The purpose of this criminal policy is not just to steal people but to make those who are deported forget about Ukraine and unable to return.’’