Ukraine has said it expects Russia to launch a huge new offensive soon in the east of the country, as Austria’s leader said he was “pessimistic” about the war ending after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After withdrawing forces from northern Ukraine, including suburbs of Kyiv lain to waste under its occupation, Russia has said its main objective is eastern Ukraine.
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It is demanding that Kyiv cede control of swathes of territory there, known as the Donbas region, to pro-Russian separatist fighters. Kyiv says it is girding for a new battle.
“We forecast that active combat will begin in these areas in the nearest time,” Ukraine’s Defence Ministry Spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.
A United States official said Washington believed Russia was trying to reinforce and resupply its troops in the Donbas region.
The biggest prize Russia aims to capture in the Donbas is Mariupol, the main eastern port city, where thousands of people are believed to have died under a near-seven week siege.
If Russia finally captures Mariupol, it could better link troops advancing from the east with those from the annexed Crimea peninsula, and shift their focus to a new attempt to encircle the main Ukrainian force in the east.
In his latest plea for international support, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told South Korea’s parliament that tens of thousands of people had been killed in Mariupol, a figure that has not been confirmed independently. “But even despite this, the Russians are not stopping their offensive”, he said.
Russia was concentrating tens of thousands of troops for its new assault, Zelenskyy said.
British intelligence said Ukrainian forces had already pushed back several Russian assaults in eastern regions.
Russia would not pause for talks
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country would not pause the fighting for any new round of negotiations.
“A decision was made that during the next rounds of talks, there would be no pause [in military action] so long as a final agreement is not reached,” Lavrov said.
Britain’s defence ministry said Russian shelling continued in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which together form the Donbas.
But Ukrainian forces had beaten back several assaults and destroyed Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery equipment, it said in its regular intelligence bulletin.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai, speaking to Ukrainian television on Monday, said shelling in the region was increasing day by day.
“The most difficult situation is in Rubizhne and Popasna. They are being shelled constantly, round the clock,” Gaidai said, referring to cities in the region.
He urged all civilians to evacuate.
“Those that wanted to leave have already left, while now many are left in bomb shelters who are perhaps frightened to come out of the shelters, or scared to lose their possessions.”
Just outside the Donbas region, the main eastern city Kharkiv came under heavy shelling on Monday, causing multiple casualties including one child who was killed, Mayor Ihor Terekhov said in a televised interview.
Terekhov said that Ukrainian forces were focused and ready to defend the city if it comes under a new attack: “There is no panic in the city,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, speaking before a meeting of European ministers in Luxembourg, said Berlin saw “massive indications” of war crimes in Ukraine.
Several European Union ministers said on Monday that the bloc’s executive was drafting proposals for an oil embargo on Russia, although there was still no agreement to ban Russian crude.
Austria chancellor meets Putin
In other developments, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer says he is “rather pessimistic” about the prospects for diplomacy ending the Ukraine conflict after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Describing Putin as having “massively entered into a logic of war”, Nehammer tells reporters “peace talks are always very time-intensive while military logic says: ‘Don’t spend too much time and go directly into battle'”.
The first European leader to meet Putin since the start of the Russian invasion, Nehammer says he “mentioned the serious war crimes … and stressed that all those responsible have to be brought to justice,” also telling Putin of the “urgent” need for humanitarian corridors.
“The offensive [in eastern Ukraine] is evidently being prepared on a massive scale,” he added.
Austria is a member of the EU and has backed the 27-nation bloc’s sanctions against Russia, though it so far has opposed cutting off deliveries of Russian gas.
The country is militarily neutral and is not a member of NATO.