Russian artillery pounds cities, towns and villages in eastern Ukraine
Russian forces aimed a punishing artillery barrage Saturday at cities, towns and villages in eastern Ukraine, destroying electrical plants, fuel depots and other key infrastructure.
The onslaught came even as Western and Ukrainian military officials and analysts said Moscow’s much vaunted military offensive in the country’s industrial heartland was being slowed by troop casualties and logistical, supply and morale problems.
And in Mariupol, the southern port city that has become ground zero in Russian brutality and Ukrainian resistance, a small group of women and children was finally evacuated Saturday from a besieged steel plant, but hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians, soldiers and wounded remained trapped.
Russia reported nearly 400 artillery strikes over-night and early Saturday, mainly in the eastern battle zone. It described the targets as military ones, but Ukraine says residential areas, including the northeastern city of Kharkiv, are being ravaged. Ukrainian officials said that among the targets hit Saturday was the airport in Odesa, considered the jewel of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Damage to fuel depots was causing severe gasoline and energy shortages, the officials said.
At the same time, the Kremlin redoubled efforts to blame the West for the devastating war that is now in its third month. The Russian invasion has killed thousands of people, left whole swaths of cities in ruins, and turned more than 5.4 million people into refugees.
Moscow’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was quoted Saturday as saying that a flood of weaponry from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies was “pumping up” the battle. But at the same time, in remarks to official Chinese media that were reported on the ministry’s website, Lavrov insisted that Washington and its European allies were “absolutely indifferent” to Ukraine’s fate. The Pentagon revealed last week that U.S. military personnel are training Ukrainians in Germany in the use of artillery, radar systems and armored vehicles, all being supplied to Ukraine by Washington and allies.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an overnight video address to the nation early Saturday, accused Russia of scorched-earth tactics in two large eastern provinces known together as the Donbas, where the fighting is concentrated. Moscow already had a foothold in two small separatist statelets before the war, but is seeking to seize the entire region.
“Russia wants to make this area uninhabited,” Zelensky said, citing “constant brutal bombings” targeting infrastructure and civilian-populated areas.
Late Saturday night, he spoke again, switching to Russian to urge Russia’s soldiers not to fight.
“Every Russian soldier can still save his own life. It’s better for you to survive in Russia than to perish on our land,” Zelensky said.
A series of factors helped pave the way for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed’s release this week as part of a prisoner exchange, at an unlikely time in Washington-Moscow relations.
Zelensky said that Russia’s determination to wipe out Ukraine is nowhere clearer than in Mariupol, the besieged port city that he described as a “Russian concentration camp” among the ruins.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Mariupol more than a week ago, saying Moscow’s forces control the city, but Ukrainian forces and civilians remain holed up in a giant steelworks complex amid increasingly desperate conditions. Russia is blockading and bombarding the sprawling compound, from which black smoke could be seen rising on Saturday.
Videos posted from inside the warren of tunnels and bunkers under the plant have shown ill and injured women and elderly people, distressed-looking children, and infants wearing diapers fashioned from plastic garbage bags. Online videos also showed gruesome untreated injuries suffered by some troops defending the plant.
Ukrainian authorities were trying to arrange civilian evacuations Saturday from Mariupol and other particularly dangerous parts of the battle zone, but such efforts have repeatedly broken down, with Russian troops accused of firing on those fleeing.
The mayor of the eastern town of Popasna said Saturday that a day earlier, two buses on their way to ferry evacuees had come under fire, and contact with the drivers had been lost. Later Saturday, Serhiy Haidai, a regional leader in the eastern Luhansk area, said one of the buses was recovered. It had been hit by grenade fire and contained blood but no bodies, he said.
European governments have repeatedly signaled concern over the deteriorating conditions for civilians in the east, particularly in Mariupol. On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron, who handily won reelection last weekend, told Zelensky by phone that France would increase military and humanitarian assistance, Macron’s office said.
Zelensky later Saturday also spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who similarly promised more military aid and to work on evacuations from Mariupol, according to Johnson’s office.
Russian and Ukrainian reports both said between 20 and 25 people finally made it out of Mariupol. The Ukrainian military said they were en route to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia. Russia, however, has frequently forced evacuees from various towns into Russia, Russian-held territory or Russian ally Belarus.
Ukrainian authorities and international investigators, meanwhile, continued to make grisly discoveries in areas occupied by Russia earlier in the war, where extensive evidence of atrocities against civilians has already come to light. In a village near the commuter town of Bucha, close to the capital, Kyiv, police unearthed the bodies of three more men, apparently civilians, wearing blindfolds and with hands bound.
The chief of Kyiv’s regional police, Andrii Niebytov, said in a video Saturday that the corpses, recovered a day earlier, bore signs of torture, and that all three men had been shot in the head, with entry wounds in their ears.
Hundreds of war crimes investigations are being launched across the country, primarily conducted by Ukrainian officials but with added assistance from the International Criminal Court, Britain and the United States. President Biden has already labeled Putin a war criminal.
As fighting raged, the latest conflict assessment from British military intelligence, released early Saturday, depicted Russian forces as facing some of the same difficulties that prompted Moscow to break off an earlier bid to seize Kyiv.
A new pipeline across a remote border area of Greece and Bulgaria will give some Eastern European countries greater access to the global gas market.
Despite Russia’s steps to improve its battlefield prospects in the east — massing troops and firepower, streamlining command and control, and fashioning shorter supply lines — its forces still face “considerable challenges,” the British assessment said.
The Russian military command is merging and redeploying “depleted and disparate units from the failed advances” in the country’s northeast, the report said, adding that many of these units were probably suffering from poor morale. It also cited inconsistent air support and a “lack of unit-level skills.”
Another new analysis, from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, or ISW, said Ukrainian forces were “successfully slowing” Russian attacks in eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s forces made limited advances west of the city of Severodonetsk, the analysis said, but remained “stalled” at a strategic bottleneck, south of the city of Izyum.
Both assessments echoed observations made by the Pentagon, where a senior official said Russia’s push south from Izyum was gaining only “a few kilometers” a day.
Western analysts have suggested nimble battlefield tactics could help Ukrainians inflict significant losses on the Russians, as they did when Kyiv was under threat. The front lines are fluid in places, with Ukrainian forces “conducting a maneuver defense rather than holding static positions,” the ISW assessment said.
Neither side has made a practice of regularly releasing updated information about battlefield deaths. Ukraine has been somewhat more forthcoming, acknowledging a significant number of dead and wounded among its troops. However, Zelensky advisor Oleksiy Arestovych on Friday described Russian losses as “colossal.”
Ukrainian authorities are cracking down on anyone suspected of aiding Russian troops under laws enacted by Ukraine’s parliament and signed by President Volodymyr Zelensky after the Feb. 24 invasion.
In an apparent effort to avoid further troop losses, Russia has been aiming withering artillery fire all across the east. In Moscow, the Defense Ministry on Saturday reported hitting 389 targets, saying those included troop concentrations, weapons caches and crucial fuel depots.
Ukraine has acknowledged that hits on fuel depots and refineries are causing a fuel crunch. Long lines of cars and trucks have been forming at gas stations in various parts of the country.
Zelensky said in his overnight address that stepped-up shipments from allies and other measures were expected to ease the shortages in the next week or two, but Ukrainian officials in the meantime asked citizens to avoid unnecessary travel in private vehicles.
“Remember the needs of the army,” exhorted an official Ukrainian government communique on the Telegram messaging app.
In the strike on Odesa, which remains in Ukrainian hands after being menaced earlier in the war, local officials said the airport’s main runway was rendered unusable.
In Lviv near the Polish border, a celebrity sighting gave a brief respite from the anxiety of war and spurred a social media flurry. Angelina Jolie, the American actor, was spotted at a coffee shop, Lviv Croissants, on Saturday afternoon. Videos and photographs on social media showed her signing a few autographs and posing with Ukrainian patrons of the shop and later meeting with children.
Jolie has served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations refugee agency and visited refugees from other conflicts elsewhere in the world.
But a spokesman for the organization, Chris Boian, said by telephone that Jolie was in Ukraine “totally on her own initiative” and that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was not involved.
King reported from Lviv and Wilkinson from Washington.
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