NOVODRUZHESK, Ukraine: Russia has launched a major offensive in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian leaders said, opening a new phase of its invasion after being thwarted in their efforts to seize the capital.
In recent weeks, Moscow’s military campaign has refocused on the eastern Donbass region, which pro-Kremlin separatists have partly controlled since 2014.
“We can now confirm that Russian troops have started the battle for Donbass, which they have been preparing for a long time,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday evening on Telegram.
“No matter how many Russian soldiers are brought here, we will fight. We will defend ourselves.
Ahead of the widely expected advance, Ukrainian authorities had urged residents of Donbass to flee west to escape.
“The second phase of the war has begun,” said Kyiv’s presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak.
Control of Donbass would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the occupied Crimean peninsula.
In the south of the region, Russia continued its efforts to capture the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, where the last remaining Ukrainian forces took up a final stand.
But despite the dire situation in the city, a senior US Department of Defense official said Mariupol “is still contested”.
Russia has also added 11 tactical battalion groups – including artillery, helicopters and logistical support, among others – to its forces in eastern Ukraine, the official added, bringing the total to 76. in the country.
Monday also saw the first shipments of a new package of US military aid arrive at Ukraine’s borders to be handed over to its fight against the Russian invasion.
On April 13, the United States unveiled an $800 million tranche of equipment for Ukraine, including helicopters, howitzers and armored personnel carriers.
Moscow forces pounded targets across the country on Monday, killing at least seven people in the far western city of Lviv.
Lviv has been largely spared from bombardment since Russia invaded on February 24, and the city and surrounding area had become a haven for those seeking shelter from the war zone.
But “today we clearly understood that we have no safe places in Ukraine. It’s very dangerous,” a bank worker who went by the name Natalia told AFP after the strikes.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday it had hit 16 military targets across Ukraine.
Among the sites affected was a depot near Lviv which Moscow said contained weapons recently delivered to Ukraine from the United States and Europe.
Shortly before Zelensky’s speech, the regional governor of the Luhansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, also announced the start of Russia’s long-awaited attack.
” It’s hell. The offensive has begun, the one we’ve been talking about for weeks. There is constant fighting in Rubizhne and Popasna, fighting in other peaceful towns,” he said on Facebook.
Russian shelling has killed at least eight civilians in eastern Ukraine, local authorities say.
Gaiday said four people died trying to flee the Kreminna town of Lugansk as Russian troops moved there.
“The Russian army has already entered there, with a huge amount of military equipment… Our defenders have retreated to new positions,” Gaiday said in a statement on social media.
But Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said Russian forces had not conquered the city.
Ukrainian officials on Monday halted the evacuation of civilians from frontline towns in the east for a second day, accusing Russian forces of blocking and shelling escape routes.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged Moscow to open humanitarian corridors from Mariupol to Berdyansk and from the Azovstal Metallurgical Industrial Zone – an obstacle for Ukrainian fighters.
“Your refusal to open these humanitarian corridors will, in the future, be grounds for prosecuting all those involved in war crimes,” she said on Telegram.
The Mariupol city council said on Monday there were more than 1,000 civilians trapped in shelters under the Azovstal steelworks, where Ukrainian forces are fighting a desperate last battle against the Russians.
“(They are) mostly women with children and elderly people,” they said on Telegram.
President Vladimir Putin said he launched the military operation on February 24 to save Russian speakers in Ukraine from a “genocide” perpetrated by a “neo-Nazi” regime.
He recognized the independence of two self-proclaimed breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk shortly before the start of the invasion.
On Monday, Putin praised the 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade – which is accused of committing atrocities near kyiv – awarding them battle honors for “heroism and bravery, tenacity and courage “.
Ukraine has alleged the brigade was guilty of war crimes while occupying the suburb of Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, where residents were shot dead, some with their hands tied.
The European Union has condemned Russia’s “indiscriminate” shelling of Ukrainian civilians following the strikes on Lviv.
Its foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, spoke of ‘particularly heavy attacks’ in eastern and southern Ukraine and an offensive on the second city of Kharkiv, where officials said Russian shelling had killed three people.
“The attacks on Lviv and other cities in western Ukraine show that no part of the country is spared from the Kremlin’s senseless onslaught,” Borrell added.
Seeking to strengthen ties and expedite admission to the 27-nation bloc, Zelensky said Ukraine hoped to receive EU candidate status within weeks.
On Monday, he handed the EU envoy in Kyiv a two-volume response to a membership questionnaire delivered by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in March.