Russia says it has begun a new phase of the invasion of Ukraine as fighting raged in the Donbas region and officials urged civilians to flee.
“Another phase of this operation is beginning and I am sure it will be a very important moment in this entire special operation,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during an interview broadcast by the India Today TV channel on Tuesday.
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Russia’s defence ministry said that “high-precision air-based missiles” had hit 13 Ukrainian positions in parts of the Donbas while other air raids “hit 60 military assets”, including in towns close to the eastern front line.
Ukraine’s armed forces also confirmed that fighting had increased throughout the east, just hours after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had kicked off the widely anticipated offensive in Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
“The Russian occupiers intensified offensive operations along the entire line of contact,” the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a report published early Tuesday.
Before the advance, Ukrainian authorities had urged people in Donbas to flee west to escape, even as officials called off evacuations for a third straight day from front-line cities due to the continuing fighting.
“No matter how many Russian soldiers are brought here, we will fight. We will defend ourselves,” Zelenskyy said on Telegram late Monday.
Control of Donbas and the besieged port city of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the Crimean Peninsula that it annexed in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of much of its coastline and a major revenue resource.
In the south, Russia continued its push to capture the besieged port city of Mariupol, as Moscow issued a fresh call for the city’s defenders to surrender and announced the opening of a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who agreed to lay down their arms.
During an interview broadcast on CNN, Pavlo Kyrylenko – who oversees the Donetsk region’s military administration – said Mariupol remained contested.
“The Ukrainian flag is flying over the city,” said Kyrylenko. “I can’t say the Russians are controlling them. It is just these streets are sustaining heavy fighting.”
In a swift response to the intensified assault, US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders discussed increasing military, economic and humanitarian support for the Kyiv government, and ways to hold Moscow accountable, the White House said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin intended to supply Ukraine with anti-tank and air defence weapons as well as long-range artillery weapons, and Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, also promised more artillery weapons as the conflict moved into a new phase.
Scholz said the allies agreed Russia must not win the war, and that an imposed peace as envisaged by Russian President Vladimir Putin was not acceptable.
The Italian government said there had been “broad consensus on the need to step up pressure on the Kremlin, including by adopting further sanctions, and to increase Moscow’s international isolation”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a four-day humanitarian pause in the fighting over the Orthodox Easter weekend to allow civilians to leave areas of conflict and humanitarian aid to be delivered.
Russia ‘carrying out’ plans
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian forces were “methodically carrying out” plans to “liberate” the breakaway regions, and critised the West for providing Ukraine with weapons.
Western countries have given Ukraine military equipment worth billions of dollars.
“The plan to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics is being methodically carried out,” Shoigu was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying at a meeting of defence officials.
“The United States and Western countries it controls are doing everything to drag out the special military operation as much as possible,” Shoigu said.
“The increasing volume of foreign arms supplies clearly demonstrates their intentions to provoke the Kyiv regime to fight to the last Ukrainian standing.”
Moscow describes the invasion, launched on February 24, as a “special military operation” designed to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine.
Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for an unprovoked attack that has forced millions to flee abroad and killed or wounded thousands of people.
“The actions of our forces and the quality of the weaponry being used demonstrate once again that the priority set by our military and political leadership of building up the Russian armed forces is correct,” Shoigu said.