Biden says Putin trying to ‘wipe out’ Ukrainian culture, as prospect of retreat looms in east

US president says Putin trying to eliminate people’s identity, as governor of Luhansk says retreat in Sievierodonetsk may be needed to avoid becoming surrounded.

Joe Biden has accused Vladimir Putin of trying to “wipe out” Ukraine’s culture but suggested the plan had at least partially backfired by spurring the expansion of Nato in Europe.

The US president told 1,200 graduating cadets in Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday: “Not only is he trying to take over Ukraine, he’s literally trying to wipe out the culture and identity of the Ukrainian people. Attacking schools, nurseries, hospitals, museums, with no other purpose than to eliminate a culture.”

The Russian president tried to “Finland-ize” Europe, Biden said, but “instead he Nato-ized all of Europe”, a reference to neutral nations Finland and Sweden’s plans to join the alliance.

On the ground, in the besieged eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk, the situation appeared bleak, with Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Haidai, saying Ukrainian forces may need to retreat after Russian troops entered the city, the largest in Donbas still held by Ukraine.

“The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days as analysts have predicted,” Haidai said on Telegram, referring to Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets river. “We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to retreat.”

Haidai said 90% of buildings in the city were damaged.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, accepted the situation in Donbas was “very difficult”, saying in a Friday night address that invading forces “have concentrated maximum artillery, maximum reserves” to the region.

“There are missiles strikes and aircraft attacks – everything,” he said. “We are protecting our land in the way that our current defence resources allow. We are doing everything to increase them. And we will increase them.

“If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian.”

Zelenskiy also appealed to European leaders for help with fuel shortages sparked by Russian airstrikes on a refinery in Kremenchuk and on oil depots across the country.

Analysts believe the main Russian effort appeared still to be focused to the east, while Russian attacks elsewhere appeared to be aimed at consolidating their positions and tying down Ukrainian defenders who could otherwise be redeployed.

Ukraine’s foreign minister offered a bleak assessment of fighting the east. “The military situation in eastern Ukraine is even worse than people say it is and the country needs heavy weapons now to effectively fight Russia,” Dmytro Kuleba said.

His comments came as the US and its allies indicated they would provide Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons, including the multiple-launch rocket systems for which Kyiv has been appealing.

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, told Bloomberg UK that Putin “at great cost to himself and to the Russian military, is continuing to chew through ground in Donbas”. “He’s continuing to make gradual, slow, but I’m afraid palpable, progress and therefore it is absolutely vital that we continue to support the Ukrainians militarily,” he said.

Russian troops advanced after piercing Ukrainian lines last week in the city of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have now captured several villages north-west of Popasna, the UK Ministry of Defence said.

Russia’s eastern gains follow a Ukrainian counter-offensive that pushed Moscow’s forces back from Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv in May. But Ukrainian forces have been unable to attack Russian supply lines to the Donbas.

On Friday, the Moscow branch of Kyiv’s Orthodox church said it was cutting ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, declaring “full independence” in a historic move against Russia’s spiritual authorities.

“We disagree with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow … on the war,” the church said in a statement after holding a council focused on Russia’s “aggression” and declaring the “full independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox church”.

“The council condemns war as a violation of God’s commandment ‘You shall not kill!’ and expresses condolences to all those who are suffering in the war,” it said.

Patriarch Kirill has expressed clear support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

It said its relations with the Moscow leadership had been “complicated or absent” since martial law was declared in Ukraine.

The council also appealed to both Ukraine and Russia to “continue the negotiation process” and find a way to “stop the bloodshed”.

Speaking to AFP, church spokesman Archbishop Kliment said of Patriarch Kirill: “Not only did he fail to condemn Russia’s military aggression but he also failed to find words for the suffering Ukrainian people.”

The Russian Orthodox church said it had “not received an official statement from the Ukrainian Orthodox church” and was unable to comment, spokesman Vladimir Legoida wrote on Telegram.

He said the Ukrainian Orthodox church was in “a very difficult position and under pressure from many directions: from the authorities, from schemers, from nationalistic-minded people … and the media”.

Ukraine has been under Moscow’s spiritual leadership for hundreds of years, since at least the 17th century.