President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that ‘tens of thousands’ of Russian troops were poised for a major assault in the east, as Ukrainian officials urged civilians to escape while there was still time.
“Russia is preparing another offensive, hoping to break our national resistance after all,” Zelensky said in a video address to lawmakers in South Korea, adding: “The occupiers concentrated tens of thousands of soldiers and a huge amount of equipment to try to strike again.”
This is also as the United States confirmed that Russia is sending hundreds of military vehicles, including infantry and combat helicopter support units, and artillery to eastern Ukraine.
New satellite images showed a long column of Russian military vehicles moving through the town of Velykyi Burluk toward the city of Izium, which could serve as the staging ground for the offensive.
Following its retreat from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, Russia is focusing its military campaign on the eastern Donbas region, aiming to seize territory to create a land corridor to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
Zelensky said in a “60 Minutes” interview last night that the West should make the rapid delivery of weapons its “No. 1” priority to help Ukraine.
“They have to supply weapons to Ukraine as if they were defending themselves and their own people. They need to understand this; if they don’t speed up, it will be very hard for us to hold on against this pressure,” he said.
Senior U.S. military officials and some analysts have said this next phase of the war will be fought on terrain more favorable to Russia’s tanks and infantry units.
Russia has also named a top battlefield commander: Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, who oversaw Russian troops in Syria.
President Vladimir Putin’s decision to appoint Dvornikov may indicate the future course of the war, Haaretz reported. Under Dvornikov’s watch, Russian forces were widely condemned for bombing civilian neighborhoods and hospitals in Syria.
Days after Russian troops drove into the city, the Ukrainian Army set a column of tanks and armored vehicles ablaze. When Russian reinforcements arrived several days later, they were out for revenge.
Previously, Bucha’s residents had been able to venture out into the streets at times to get water or food. But after the assault on the column, the atmosphere hardened.
Russian troops were particularly suspicious of men of fighting age, often accusing them of being members of the Ukrainian defense forces before taking them away for questioning. Some were killed while in custody.
Ukraine’s ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, said she had recorded horrific cases of sexual violence by Russian troops in Bucha and other places, including one in which a group of women and girls were kept in a basement for 25 days. Nine of them are now pregnant, she said.
In the last week of March, when Ukrainian forces mounted a counterattack, one of the last acts of the retreating Russian forces was to shoot detainees or anyone who got in the way. At least 15 people were found dead with their hands bound, in various places around the city.
Of the 360 bodies found through the weekend in Bucha and its immediate surroundings, more than 250 had been killed by bullets or shrapnel. Ukrainian authorities are collecting evidence to support an investigation into war crimes.
A retired teacher known as Auntie Lyuda was killed on March 5. Her dog waited outside more than a month later.
Meanwhile, mayor of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol said Monday that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the Russian siege of his city, and that the death toll could surpass 20,000, with corpses that were “carpeted through the streets.”
Mayor Vadym Boychenko also said Russian forces brought mobile cremation equipment to Mariupol to dispose of the bodies, and he accused Russian forces of refusing to allow humanitarian convoys into the city in an attempt to conceal the carnage.
Russian forces have taken many bodies to a huge shopping center where there are storage facilities and refrigerators, Boychenko said.
“Mobile crematoriums have arrived in the form of trucks: You open it, and there is a pipe inside and these bodies are burned,” he said.
The mayor’s comments emerged as Russia claimed that it destroyed several Ukrainian air-defense systems in what appeared to be a renewed push to gain air superiority and take out weapons Kyiv has described as crucial ahead of an expected broad new offensive in the east.
In one strike, Moscow said it hit four S-300 launchers near the central city of Dnipro that had been provided by a European country it did not name. Slovakia gave Ukraine just such a system last week but denied it had been destroyed. Russia previously reported two strikes on similar systems in other places.
The failure to win full control of Ukraine’s skies has hampered Moscow’s ability to provide air cover for troops on the ground, limiting their advances and likely exposing them to greater losses.
With their offensive in many parts of the country thwarted, Russian forces have relied increasingly on bombarding cities — a strategy that has left many urban areas flattened and killed thousands of people.
Ukrainian authorities accuse Russian forces of committing atrocities, including a massacre in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, airstrikes on hospitals and a missile attack that killed at least 57 people last week at a train station.
In Bucha on Monday, the work of exhuming bodies from a mass grave in a churchyard resumed.
And in Mariupol, about 120,000 civilians are in dire need of food, water, warmth and communications, the mayor said.
Elsewhere, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he met Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow for talks that were “very direct, open and tough.”
In a statement released by his office, Nehammer said his primary message to Putin was “that this war needs to end, because in war both sides can only lose.”
Nehammer said he also raised the issue of war crimes committed by the Russian military and said those responsible “will be held to account.”
Austria is a member of the European Union and has backed the 27-nation bloc’s sanctions against Russia, though it so far has opposed cutting off deliveries of Russian gas. The country is militarily neutral and is not a member of NATO.
In other developments, the head of the separatist rebel government in Donetsk said Ukrainian forces have lost control of the port area of Mariupol.
“Regarding the port of Mariupol, it is now under our control,” Denis Pushilin, president of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told Russian state television, according to Russian news agencies. The claim could not immediately be confirmed.
The mayor said fighting continues.
“It is difficult, but our heroic military holds on,” Boychenko said. “There are fights in the port. Yesterday, our heroic warriors knocked out several positions of equipment and, accordingly, rebuffed the infantry.
Russia has appointed a seasoned general to lead its renewed push in the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014 and have declared independent states.
The Pentagon’s latest assessment is that Russia is gearing up for an intensified offensive there as more troops and materiel move toward the area.
A senior U.S. defense official said a lengthy convoy is headed toward the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, aviation and infantry support.
More artillery is being deployed near the city of Donetsk, while ground combat units that withdrew from around the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas appear destined for refitting and resupplying before they position in Donbas, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.
Both sides are digging in for what could be a devastating war of attrition.
Russian forces will likely try to encircle the Donbas region from the north and the south as well as the east, said retired British Gen. Richard Barrons, co-chair of the U.K.-based strategic consulting firm Universal Defence & Security Solutions.
The ground in that part of Ukraine is flatter, more open and less wooded, so the Ukrainian ambush tactics used around Kiev may be less successful, Barrons said.
“As to the outcome, it’s finely balanced right now,” Barrons said. If the Russians learned from their previous failures, concentrated more force, connected their air force to ground forces better and improved their logistics, “then they might start to overwhelm the Ukrainian positions eventually, although I still think it would be a battle of enormous attrition.”
In a video address to South Korean lawmakers on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy specifically requested equipment that can shoot down Russian missiles.
But those armaments could increasingly come under attack as Russia looks to shift the balance in the 6-week-old war.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military used cruise missiles to destroy the four launchers, Sunday, on the southern outskirts of Dnipro. He said the military also hit such systems in the Mykolaiv and Kharkiv regions.
The Russian claims could not be independently verified.
The Pentagon said it had seen no evidence to support Russia’s claims. And Lubica Janikova, spokeswoman for Slovakia’s prime minister, denied Monday that the S-300 system it sent Ukraine had been destroyed. She said any other claim is not true.
Questions remain about the ability of depleted and demoralized Russian forces to conquer much ground after their advance on Kyiv was repelled by determined Ukrainian defenders.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Monday that Ukraine has already beaten back several assaults by Russian forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions — which make up the Donbas — resulting in the destruction of Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery.
Western military analysts say Russia’s assault increasingly is focusing on an arc of territory stretching from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the north, to Kherson in the south.
Courtesy: NYTimes, AP