Ukrainian forces dug in and the Russian military lined up more firepower on Sunday ahead of an expected showdown in eastern Ukraine that could become a watershed moment in a war that has leveled towns, killed thousands and isolated Moscow economically and politically.
Experts say a full-scale offensive in the east could begin within days, although questions remain over the ability of exhausted and demoralized Russian forces to capture much ground after Ukraine-inspired defenders repelled their push to capture the capital, kyiv.
The British Ministry of Defense reported on Sunday that the Russian armed forces were trying to make up for mounting losses by increasing the number of troops with personnel who had been discharged since 2012. Ukraine has the bulk of its military forces east: estimates vary, but thought to number in the tens of thousands.
Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and control parts of Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, its troops have bombarded government-controlled territory. The planned offensive to the east and south could end up excising a large swath of land from Ukraine.
On Sunday, Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the northeast and sent reinforcements towards Izyum in the southeast in an attempt to breach Ukrainian defences, Ukraine’s military command said. The Russians also maintained their siege of Mariupol, a key southern port which was attacked and surrounded for almost a month and a half.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said the Russian military used air-launched missiles to strike Ukraine’s S-300 air defense missile systems in the southern Mykolaiv region and at an airbase in Chuhuiv, a town not far from Kharkiv. .
Russian sea-launched cruise missiles also destroyed the headquarters of a Ukrainian military unit stationed further west in the Dnipro region, Konashenkov said. Neither Ukrainian nor Russian military allegations could be independently verified.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for stronger military and political support from the West, including NATO members who have flown arms and military equipment to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, but rejected some requests for fear of being 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 meant to be confined to Ukraine alone” and “the he whole European project is a target,” he said.
“That is why it is not only the moral duty of all democracies, of all forces in Europe, to support Ukraine’s desire for peace,” Zelenskyy said. “It is, in fact, a defense strategy for every civilized state.”
Zelenskyy thanked the chairman of the European Union executive board and the prime minister of Canada for a global fundraising event on Saturday that raised more than 10 billion euros ($11 billion) to help Ukrainians who fled the war.
The UN refugee agency reported on Sunday that more than 4.5 million people have left the country since the invasion sparked Europe’s worst ground conflict since World War II. On Friday evening, the UN human rights commissioner confirmed the death of 1,766 civilians in more than six weeks of fighting – including 630 in the Donbass – while acknowledging that the toll was likely a vast under -enumeration.
After British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv on Saturday on a trip the British government did not announce in advance, Zelenskyy said they had decided “how much help the UK will give to post-war reconstruction of Ukraine” and that it includes “patronage” to rebuild the Kyiv region”.
Ukrainian authorities 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 retreated from the outskirts of kyiv.
Zelenskyy said that when he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke by phone on Sunday, “we emphasized that all perpetrators of war crimes must be identified and punished.”
Ukraine has accused Russia of alleged atrocities against civilians in Bucha and other towns outside the capital, where hundreds of bodies, many with their hands tied and showing signs of torture, were found after the withdrawal of Russian troops. Russia has denied committing war crimes and falsely claimed the Bucha scenes were staged.
After Russian forces withdrew this week from the north, firefighters searched the building’s rubble for victims or survivors in towns like Borodyanka. The center of the city of about 12,000 inhabitants, northwest of kyiv, has become almost a ghost town.
“I can’t believe my eyes, it’s hard to say but I really don’t believe my eyes that it’s possible,” said Natalia Shulhach, a 45-year-old teacher and resident of Borodyanka. “I don’t understand how this happens in the 21st century.”
In Mariupol, Russia deploys Chechen fighters, reputed to be particularly ferocious. Capturing the city on the Sea of Azov would give Russia a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukriane eight years ago.
Residents have lacked food, water and electricity since Russian forces surrounded the town, making evacuations difficult and providing emergency relief even more difficult.
Zelenskyy said he expects more evidence of atrocities to be found once Mariupol is no longer blocked; Ukrainian authorities believe an airstrike on a theater where civilians were sheltering left hundreds dead.
“I’m in shock. I don’t understand what’s going on. I have a hole in my garage that’s emitting smoke,” Mariupol resident Sergey Petrov told The Associated Press, describing a contact with death.” A shell came and broke in two parts, but it did not explode. … My mother told me that I was born again 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 southern and eastern towns.
The Institute for the Study of War, an American think tank, predicted that Russian forces would focus their assault on the northern edge of a sickle-shaped arc of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces seized the territory.
Russian forces “will renew offensive operations in the coming days” from Izyum, a town southeast of Kharkiv, in an attempt to reach Sloviansk, even further southeast, analysts at the institute said. But in their opinion, “the outcome of the next Russian operations in eastern Ukraine remains very uncertain”.
Ukrainian officials have pleaded almost daily with Western powers to send in more weapons and further punish Moscow with sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from the global financial system and a full EU embargo on gas and oil. Russian oil.
In an interview with The Associated Press inside his heavily guarded presidential office complex on Saturday night, Zelenskyy said he was determined to broker a diplomatic end to the war even though Russia has been “torturing” Ukraine. .
He also acknowledged that peace is unlikely to come quickly. The talks so far have not included Putin or other senior Russian officials.
“We have to fight, but fight for life. You can’t fight for dust when there’s nothing and nobody. This is 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 the weapons and equipment Ukraine had received from the West were enough to alter the outcome of the conflict. the war.
“Not yet,” he said, switching to English for emphasis. “Of course, that’s not enough.”
Anna reported from Bucha, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch at Borodyanko and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine