By AP and published by Denver Post, plus BBC
Kyiv, Ukraine – Russia ratcheted up its battle for control of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland on Tuesday, assaulting cities and towns along a boomerang-shaped front hundreds of miles long in what both sides described as a new phase of the war.
After a Russian push to overrun the capital failed, the Kremlin declared that its main goal was the capture of the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
If successful, that offensive would give President Vladimir Putin a vital piece of Ukraine and a badly needed victory in the now 7-week-old war that he could present to the Russian people amid mounting casualties and economic hardship caused by the West’s sanctions.
It would also effectively slice Ukraine in two and deprive it of the main industrial assets concentrated in the east, including coal mines, metals plants and machine-building factories.
Ukraine’s military said early Tuesday that a “new phase of war” began a day earlier when “the occupiers made an attempt to break through our defences along nearly the entire front line.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that “another phase of this operation is starting now.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that massive numbers of Russian troops were committed to the campaign, though some observers noted that an escalation had been underway there for some time and questioned whether this was truly the start of a new offensive.
Justin Crump, a former British tank commander now with the strategic advisory company Sibylline, said the Ukrainian comments could, in part, be an attempt to persuade allies to send more weapons.
“What they’re trying to do by positioning this, I think, is … focus people’s minds and effort by saying, ‘Look, the conflict has begun in the Donbas,’” Crump said. “That partly puts pressure on Nato and EU suppliers to say, ‘Guys, we’re starting to fight now. We need this now.’”
European and American arms have been key to bolstering Ukraine’s defence, helping the under-gunned country to hold off the Russians. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Zelenskyy on Tuesday that the Netherlands would send “heavier material,” including armoured vehicles.
In what appeared to be an intensification of attacks, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that air-launched missiles destroyed 13 Ukrainian troop and weapons locations, while the air force struck 60 other Ukrainian military facilities, including missile warhead storage depots.
Russian artillery hit 1,260 Ukrainian military facilities and 1,214 troop concentrations over the last 24 hours, Konashenkov said on Tuesday. The claims could not be independently verified.
The assaults began on Monday along a front that stretches more than 480 kilometres (300 miles) from northeastern Ukraine to the country’s southeast.
Associated Press journalists in Kharkiv said at least four people were killed and three wounded in a Russian attack on a residential area of the city, which is near the front lines and has faced repeated shelling. The attack occurred as residents attempted on Tuesday to maintain a sense of normalcy, with municipal workers planting spring flowers in public areas.
An explosion also rocked the eastern city of Kramatorsk on Tuesday, killing at least one person and wounding three, according to AP journalists at the scene.
Eyewitness accounts and reports from officials have given a broad picture of the extent of the Russian advance. But independent reporting in the parts of the Donbas held by Russian forces and separatists is severely limited, making it difficult to know what is happening in many places on the ground.
Moscow’s troops seized control of one town in the Donbas on Monday, according to Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said that the defensive line had held elsewhere.
The breakthrough in Kreminna takes the Russians one small step closer to their apparent goal of encircling Ukrainian troops in the region.
Retired British Gen. Richard Barrons told the BBC that “in this particular battle the Russians will be approaching the Ukrainians from the east, but also from the north and the south to try and get behind them, and so this is a more complex military problem for the Ukrainians.”
A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians’ estimate, were holed up in a sprawling steel plant, representing what was believed to be the last major pocket of resistance in the shattered city.
On Tuesday, Russia issued a new ultimatum to the Ukrainian defenders to surrender, saying those who come out will “keep their lives,” and said a ceasefire was being declared in the area so the combatants could leave the plant. The Ukrainians have ignored previous such offers, and there was no immediate confirmation a ceasefire occurred.
The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose forces have taken part in the fighting in Mariupol, said on a messaging app that Russian forces would root out the Ukrainian resistance within hours and take full control of the steel mill on Tuesday. Kadyrov is known for his bluster and has repeatedly predicted the city’s fall in the past.
Securing Mariupol would free Russian troops up to move elsewhere in the Donbas, deprive Ukraine of a vital port, and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, seized from Ukraine from 2014.
Biden holds video call with allies as Russia offensive begins
The purpose of the call was to discuss “continued support for Ukraine and efforts to hold Russia accountable”, the White House said.
Washington sees the Moscow offensive as a “prelude” to larger, expected operations in the east, a senior US official told the Reuters news agency.
Those on the call included Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and UK PM Boris Johnson, as well as the leaders of Poland, Japan and Italy.
Top: Russian military vehicles move on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol, Ukraine, on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo: Alexei Alexandrov/ The Associated Press and published by Denver Post
First insert: Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) servicemen enter an apartment during an operation to arrest suspected Russian collaborators in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo: AP /Felipe Dana and published by ABC News
Second insert: Ukrainian troops are attempting to rebuff an assault in the Donbas. Photo: EPA and published by BBC
Third insert: US President Joe Biden. Photo: Getty Images and published by BBC
Home Page: Russian-backed fighters are reportedly trying to storm an industrial complex in Mariupol. Photo Reuters and published by BBC
(By Adam Schreck with Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff members around the world.)