By AP, published by US News & World Report, plus CNN
Kyiv, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces dug in and Russia’s military lined up more firepower on Sunday ahead of an expected showdown in eastern Ukraine that could become a decisive period in a war that has flattened cities, killed untold thousands and isolated Moscow economically and politically.
Experts say a full-scale offensive in the east could start within days, though questions remained about the ability of Russia’s depleted and demoralised forces to conquer much ground after Ukraine’s inspired defenders repelled their push to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Britain’s Defence Ministry reported on Sunday that Russia’s armed forces were trying to compensate for mounting casualties by boosting troop numbers with personnel who had been discharged from service since 2012. Ukraine has the bulk of its military forces in the east: estimates vary, but they are believed to number in the tens of thousands.
Satellite images collected and analysed by Maxar Technologies show a 12-kilometre-long (eight miles) military convoy moving south through the eastern Ukraine town of Velkyi Burluk on April 8.
The town sits to the east of Kharkiv, close to Ukraine’s border with Russia.
The images show “armoured vehicles, trucks with towed artillery and support equipment” making up the convoy, Maxar said.
Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and control parts of the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, its troops have bombarded government-held territory. The anticipated offensive in the east and south could end up excising a vast swath of land from Ukraine.
On Sunday, Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the northeast and sent reinforcements toward Izyum to the southeast in attempts to break Ukraine’s defences, the Ukrainian military command said. The Russians also kept up their siege of Mariupol, a key southern port that has been under attack and surrounded for nearly 1 ½ months.
A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Russia’s military used air-launched missiles to hit Ukraine’s S-300 air defence missile systems in the southern Mykolaiv region and at an air base in Chuhuiv, a city not far from Kharkiv.
Russia’s sea-launched cruise missiles also destroyed the headquarters of a Ukrainian military unit stationed farther west in the Dnipro region, Konashenkov said. Neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian military claims could be independently verified.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed for stronger military and political support from the West, including Nato members that have funnelled weapons and military equipment to Ukraine since Russia invaded but denied some requests for fear of getting drawn into the war.
In a late night video message, Zelenskyy argued that more than Ukraine’s future was at stake: Russia’s aggression “was not intended to be limited to Ukraine alone” and the “entire European project is a target,” he said.
“That is why it is not just the moral duty of all democracies, all the forces of Europe, to support Ukraine’s desire for peace,” Zelenskyy said. ”This is, in fact, a strategy of defence for every civilised state.”
Zelenskyy thanked the president of the European Union’s executive commission and Canada’s prime minister for a global fundraising event on Saturday that brought in more than 10 billion euros ($11 billion) to help Ukrainians who have fled the war.
Zelensky said, “Boris was among those who didn’t doubt for a minute whether to support Ukraine. The leadership of Great Britain, in providing our country help in defence and also leadership in the sanctions policy, will always be in history.
“Ukraine will always be grateful for this to Boris and Britain,” Zelensky said.
Johnson met with Zelensky in a surprise Saturday visit to Kyiv to outline the UK’s plan to provide further financial and military support.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted the UK is sending additional “lethal aid” to Ukraine, including 120 more armoured vehicles; new anti-ship missile systems; and $130 million in high-grade military equipment.
The UN refugee agency reported on Sunday that more than 4.5 million people have left the country since the invasion started Europe’s worst ground conflict since World World II. As of Friday night, the UN’s human rights commissioner had confirmed 1,766 civilian deaths from more than six weeks of fighting – 630 of them in the Donbas – while acknowledging the toll was likely a vast undercount.
Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of committing war crimes against thousands of civilians during the invasion. The alleged crimes took place during airstrikes on hospitals, a missile attack that killed 52 people at a train station in eastern Ukraine on Friday and as Russian soldiers withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv.
Zelenskyy said that when he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke by phone on Sunday, “we emphasised that all perpetrators of war crimes must be identified and punished.”
Ukraine has blamed Russia for alleged atrocities against civilians in Bucha and other towns outside the capital where hundreds of bodies, many with their hands bound and signs of torture, were found after the Russian troops retreated. Russia has denied engaging in war crimes and falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.
After the Russian forces pulled out from the north this week to regroup for the push in the east, firefighters combed through the rubble of buildings to search for victims or survivors. Maria Vaselenko, 77, a resident of Borodyanka, said her daughter and son-in-law were killed, leaving her grandchildren orphaned.
“The Russians were shooting. And some people wanted to come and help, but they were shooting them. They were putting explosives under dead people,” Vaselenko said. “That’s why my children have been under the rubble for 36 days. It was not allowed” to remove bodies.
In Mariupol, Russia was deploying Chechen fighters, reputed to be particularly fierce. Capturing the city on the sea of Azov would give Russia a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.
Zelenskyy has said he expects more evidence of atrocities to be found once Mariupol no longer is blockaded; Ukrainian authorities think an airstrike on a theatre where civilians were sheltering killed hundreds.
“I am in shock. I don’t understand what is happening. I have a hole in my garage billowing smoke,” Mariupol resident Sergey Petrov told The Associated Press, describing a brush with death. “A shell flew in and broke up into two parts, but it did not explode. … My mother told me that I was born again on that day.”
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said more civilians were expected to leave Mariupol in their personal vehicles on Sunday, while more evacuations were planned for a number of towns in the south and east.
The Institute for the Study of War, an American think tank, predicted Russian forces would focus their assault on the northern edge of a sickle-shaped arc of eastern Ukraine where the pro-Russia separatists and Russian forces have seized territory.
Russian forces will “renew offensive operations in the coming days” from Izyum, a town southeast of Kharkiv, to try to reach Slovyansk, even further southeast, the institute’s analysts said. But in their view, “The outcome of forthcoming Russian operations in eastern Ukraine remains very much in question.”
Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western powers almost daily to send more arms and further punish Moscow with sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from the global financial system and a total EU embargo on Russian gas and oil.
In an interview with The Associated Press inside his heavily guarded presidential office complex on Saturday, Zelenskyy said he was committed to negotiating a diplomatic end to the war even though Russia has “tortured” Ukraine.
He also acknowledged that peace likely will not come quickly. Talks so far have not included Putin or other top Russian officials.
“We have to fight, but fight for life. You can’t fight for dust when there is nothing and no people. That’s why it is important to stop this war,” the president said.
In the interview with AP, Zelenskyy noted the increased support but expressed frustration when asked if weapons and equipment Ukraine has received from the West is sufficient to shift the war’s outcome.
“Not yet,” he said, switching to English for emphasis. “Of course it’s not enough.”
Top: This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of a convoy of armoured vehicles and trucks moving south, around Velykyi Burluk, east of Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, on April 8, 2022. Photo: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP and published by US News & World Report
First insert: Ukrainian soldiers attempt to salvage parts from a Russian armoured vehicle in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022. Photo: NYTIMES and published by The Straits Times
Second insert: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson shake hands during their meeting in Kyiv. Photo: CNN
Third insert: Men inspect remains of a missile near a rail station in Kramatorsk on April 8, 2022. Photo: Reuters and published by The Straits Times
Fourth insert: A dosimetrist measures the level of radiation around trenches dug by the Russian military in an area with high levels of radiation called the Red Forest, in Chernobyl, Ukraine on April 7. Photo: Gleb Garanich/Reuters and published by CNN
Home Page: Soldiers from the Azov battalion survey the burned remains of a Russian convoy in Bucha, on April 2, 2022. Photo: NYTIMES and published by The Straits Times