Russia has shelled more than 40 towns and villages in the Donbass region, Ukrainian officials said Thursday, as Moscow stepped up attacks in Ukraine’s industrial heartland and tried to encircle key eastern cities.
Now in its fourth month, Russia’s war against its neighbor is increasingly focused on efforts to take over the Donbass and install pro-Moscow local governments and pro-Russian public demonstrations in the regions it controls, including around the key southern ones Cities of Cherson and Mariupol.
The intensified attacks in Donbass came as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced new initiatives to consolidate Russian achievements and potentially secure new ones.
Putin ordered on Wednesday to speed up Russian citizenship for Ukrainians in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions. The move could further solidify the Kremlin’s grip on the areas that would serve as a strategic link between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally seized in 2014.
In a sign of the thinning of the country’s military resources, Russian lawmakers have also removed the age limit – until recently 40 – for Russians who enlist in voluntary military service to fight in Ukraine.
In a late night video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the new age rules in Russia are a sign that “they don’t have enough young men left”.
“But they still have the will to fight. It will take some time to smash this will,” said Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyi also balked at suggestions that Ukraine should cede territory to end the war. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that Ukraine must give up claims on Crimea and parts of the Donbass to secure peace.
Zelenskyy said that “great geopoliticians” “ignore the millions of people who actually live on the territory they want to trade for an illusion of peace. We must always think of people and remember that values are not just words.”
But Moscow said it expects Kyiv to recognize the reality on the ground and comply with its demands, which include recognizing pro-Russian breakaway territories in the Donbas. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that the Ukrainian government must “acknowledge the de facto situation and simply assess it soberly.”
In Washington, the Pentagon released its own assessment of Russia’s progress in Donbass. Although Russian forces are following a “piecemeal” approach, with smaller units attacking smaller targets, they are still advancing, the Pentagon said.
“Our assessment today is that the Russians have made some incremental gains,” said a senior US defense official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity about the information sharing. “Profits are important. … But it’s also really important not to forget the adjective there: incremental. It’s not wholesale.”
Also on Thursday, two captured Russian soldiers pleaded guilty in the second war crimes trial Ukraine held amid the fighting. The trial in central Ukraine’s Kotelevska District Court focused on allegations that the two men fired from across the Russian border into the Kharkiv region and destroyed a school in the city of Derhachi.
Prosecutors said the soldiers, who were part of a Russian artillery unit, then entered Ukraine and continued firing before being captured.
“I repent and ask for a reduced sentence,” one of the men, Alexander Ivanov, said during Thursday’s hearing, which was streamed live on YouTube.
The men face twelve years in prison. A verdict is expected on Tuesday.
In the first war crimes trial this week, a 21-year-old Russian soldier was sentenced to life in prison for killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian. Ukrainian prosecutors say they are preparing dozens of cases out of thousands of war crimes they have identified.
As Ukraine prosecutes Russian soldiers, leaders this week conceded some battlefield defeats and signaled more could follow.
In the Donbass, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, Kyiv-backed Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said in a post on messaging app Telegram that “more than 90%” of his region had come under Russian control. He said Severodonetsk and Lysychansk were the largest cities in the region that remained in Ukrainian hands.
The Pentagon’s assessment agreed that Russia had captured “most of northeastern Severodonetsk,” although fighting there continued. “It looks like they are really trying to push the Ukrainian forces that are in this area and down towards Lysychansk,” the defense official said.
While attention focused on the fierce battle to the east, concern also grew as Russian troops advanced toward the town of Zaporizhia, through a key escape corridor for residents of Mariupol and other areas now ruled by Moscow.
It has been reported that Russian forces are advancing from the south within 20 miles of Zaporizhia.
Nerves were strained on Thursday after three missiles hit Zaporizhia the day before in the most damaging strikes on the city yet. One dead and a handful injured were reported. The attacks hit a downtown shopping mall and a helicopter components factory, and destroyed more than a dozen houses in a residential area.
Amid a steady rain on Thursday, desperate families gathered their charred belongings from the bombed out homes, many of which are facing demolition. They piled what they could into cars and trucks that weaved through the muddy lanes of the working-class neighborhood.
Ukrainian troops on a highway leading from the north to Zaporizhia diverted traffic away from a bridge spanning an embankment on the Dnipro River. Officials feared Russian missiles could hit the bridge.
“Yes, people are nervous, especially after these recent attacks,” said Denys Peschyhyn, a volunteer coordinator at a distribution center where people – many displaced from other parts of Ukraine – are waiting for food and clothing distributions. “But it’s not about panic. Zaporizhia will fight.”
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The war in Ukraine, which began on February 24, has displaced more than 11 million Ukrainians and united global powers against Putin. About 4,000 civilians have been killed and more than 4,500 injured since February, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The agency says the numbers are likely too low.
Life in Russia has also deteriorated under the weight of international sanctions. On Wednesday, Putin ordered a 10 percent increase in pensions and the minimum wage to fight inflation, and acknowledged on TV that 2022 would be a “difficult” year but denied that difficulties were linked to Russia’s war-related economic isolation related . On Thursday, the Russian central bank also lowered its key interest rate from 14% to 11%.
Russian oil exports continue to flow to the European Union, although the bloc has been debating a ban for weeks. Hungary, an EU member state, has opposed the proposal.
Meanwhile, a historic move by Finland and Sweden to apply for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has also met with opposition from Turkey, which has opposed membership.
Two Russian soldiers accused of war crimes in Ukraine appeared for a second court hearing in the town of Kotelva.
Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin became the youngest head of state to visit Ukraine on Thursday. She met with Zelenskyy in the capital Kyiv and also inspected Bucha and Irpin, suburbs where Russian forces are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians. “It was extremely difficult to look at everything that Russia has done to these cities,” Marin said, according to a report released by Ukraine’s Presidential Office.
And in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken used a major speech on China to pledge consolidated global support to Ukraine. Washington will build on the current anti-Russia coalition to face an even greater challenge from the stronger world power – and Moscow’s ally – Beijing, he said.
“Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that is the People’s Republic of China,” Blinken said. He did so in part in response to critics who believe the resource-draining focus on Ukraine could undermine US resolve to curb Chinese expansion.
“We do not want to deter China from its role as a great power, nor do we want to prevent China – or any other country – from developing its economy or advancing the interests of its people,” Blinken said. “But we will defend and strengthen international law, agreements, principles and institutions that maintain peace and security, protect the rights of individuals and sovereign nations, and enable all countries — including the United States and China — to live and work together.”
McDonnell reported from Zaporizhzhia and Kaleem from London. Tracy Wilkinson, a Times Washington contributor, contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-05-26/ukraine-russia-shelling-dozens-towns-battle-donbas Russians shell dozens of Ukrainian towns in the Donbas