Ukraine braces for new offensive in Donbas as Russia reinforcements move in

Ukraine and its international partners are bracing for Russia to launch a new offensive, with the Pentagon on Monday saying there are signs that the Kremlin has begun reinforcing and resupplying its forces in the eastern Donbas region as a top official in Moscow vowed there would be no letup in hostilities before the next round of peace talks.

US intelligence has observed a massive Russian military convoy making its way south toward Izyum, a strategically important town in northeast Ukraine that Russia seized earlier this month and may use now as a staging point to carry out assaults on larger cities to the south, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. The expectation, Kirby added, is that the “same brutal tactics, that same disregard for civilian life and civilian infrastructure, will probably continue” as Russian military commanders concentrate on the Donbas.

The bleak US assessment came amid renewed concerns about the potential for a chemical weapons attack, and as Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, became the first Western leader to meet face to face with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the incursion began in late February. Nehammer’s trip, according to officials in Vienna, was intended to convey to the Russian leader that, morally, Putin had already lost the war.

“This is not a friendly visit,” the chancellor said in a statement. “I have just come from Ukraine and have seen with my own eyes the immeasurable suffering caused by the Russian war of aggression.”

Amid the global outrage over accusations that Russian troops committed atrocities targeting civilians in areas around the capital, Kyiv, French law enforcement officials prepared to start working on related investigations after arriving in Ukraine on Monday. Prosecutors in France have opened multiple probes into potential war crimes committed against French nationals there.

President Biden, meanwhile, met virtually with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urged him not to increase Russian energy imports, as the international community seeks to impose greater financial pressure on Moscow to call off its war. Biden said after the meeting that the United States and India are in “close consultation” in managing the “destabilizing” effects of Russia’s actions.

While Russia has pulled back from the suburbs of Kyiv and other parts of northern Ukraine, Putin’s forces continue to attack elsewhere.

Russia has continued to fire artillery, rockets and mortars at the northern city of Kharkhiv, Ukrainian military officials said. Russian forces, they said, attempted on Monday to storm the city of Sievierodonetsk in the Donbas region but were unsuccessful.

In a speech relayed via video to South Korean lawmakers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday said the Russian buildup in eastern Ukraine includes “tens of thousands of soldiers and a huge amount of equipment.” With its new offensive, he said, Russia aims to “break our national resistance.”

Zelensky highlighted the destruction in Mariupol, a port city in the south that has been bombed for weeks.

“There are tens of thousands of dead,” the Ukrainian leader said in his address. “But even despite this, the Russians do not stop the offensive. They want to make Mariupol a demonstratively destroyed city. ”

The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, said in an interview with the Associated Press that 10,000 civilians there have been killed. He estimated that the death toll could double amid the Russians’ unrelenting assault, which has made it difficult for rescue workers to reach the dead and the wounded.

The Pentagon also assessed that the number of people killed in Mariupol could be as high as Zelensky described.

“I do not think anybody’s really going to know until Ukrainian authorities are able to get in there and look and see,” Kirby said. “But if you just look at the imagery, and you see how much the Russians have pounded Mariupol from the air, it’s inconceivable to imagine that there are not going to be civilian casualties and that it could be a significant number.”

Zelensky said in a separate video address released late Monday that the government in Kyiv takes “as seriously as possible” an apparent threat to unleash chemical weapons on the Ukrainian units remaining in Mariupol, which earlier in the day claimed on social media that such an attack had already occurred there.

Kirby acknowledged that US officials were aware of those claims but were unable to confirm their veracity, saying the Pentagon would closely monitor the situation. “These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rescuers on Monday pulled seven more bodies from ruins in Borodyanka, an area northwest of Kyiv that was devastated by airstrikes. The dead there were found in the rubble of two apartment buildings, Ukraine’s emergency services agency said in a Telegram post. Nineteen victims have been removed from the rubble, according to the update, and rescue efforts continue.

A senior European Union official, Josep Borrell, said that he “witnessed the brutal, brutal aggression of the Russian troops against the civilian population” during an official visit to Kyiv with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and that the EU would support the work of prosecutors from Ukraine and the International Criminal Court to collect evidence of possible war crimes committed by Russian forces.

Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, predicted that more bloodshed is in store as Russia masses forces in the east and prepares to intensify operations in the next few days.

A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon, said it was unclear when Russia may launch the new assault but that there were signs it was preparing to do so. So far, this official said, Russia has reinforced its military posture around the city of Donetsk, where Ukrainian forces have battled Russian separatists for several years, by adding artillery units to the southwest.

The convoy now pressing south from the Russian border includes a command element, a support battalion, helicopter support and infantrymen for security, the US official said, calling it “clear evidence” that Russia is already pursuing its goal to seize the Donbas after failing to take Kyiv. Russia has focused the majority of its airstrikes in recent days on the Donbas region, the official said.

Moscow’s decision to name Gen. Alexander Dvornikov as its top commander in Ukraine is unlikely to alter Russia’s tactics, US officials said. Dvornikov has been dubbed the “butcher of Syria” for the violence his forces inflicted during Russia’s military campaign there in the last few years.

“We’re probably turning another page in the same book of Russian brutality,” Kirby told reporters Monday.

Russia will not pause its military operations in Ukraine before the next rounds of peace talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday in an interview with state TV channel Rossiya 24. He added that while Putin had ordered a temporary halt in military action during an early round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegates, Moscow has since changed its stance.

“After we became convinced that the Ukrainians were not planning to reciprocate, a decision was made that during the next rounds of talks, there would be no pause until a final agreement is reached and signed,” Lavrov said.

In the interview, Lavrov also appeared to recast Moscow’s goals, saying its operations in Ukraine are meant to end a course by the United States “towards world domination.” Russian officials previously justified their invasion by calling it an effort to “denazify” Ukraine.

Amid the bloodshed, the UN Development Program announced a new initiative to support Ukraine over the next two years as it seeks to deal with the devastation and rebuild its institutions for a possible postwar future.

The program will provide on-the-ground services including infrastructure repair, debris removal and new ways to generate income for those who have lost their jobs, UN officials said. They cited earlier research finding that the war could wipe out 18 years of socioeconomic progress in Ukraine if it is not resolved decisively, and soon.

“The war in Ukraine continues to inflict immense human suffering,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said in a statement. Early estimates, he said, “project that close to two decades of socio-economic progress could be lost if the war continues – with 9 out of 10 people at risk of falling into poverty.”

Lamothe reported from Washington, Bellware from Chicago and Ilyushina from Riga, Latvia. David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, Anabelle Timsit in London, and Karoun Demirjian, Reis Thebault, Felicia Sonmez and Paulina Firozi in Washington contributed to this report.

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