Intensifying barrage pounds eastern Ukraine as Zelensky warns about Russia's war aims

Moscow trying to establish full control of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and secure land connection to Crimea

By Reuters

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Published: Sat 23 Apr 2022, 5:56 PM

Ukrainian forces were pulling back from some settlements to regroup as an intensifying barrage pounded all cities in Luhansk region, its governor said on Saturday, with Russia pressing its offensive in the east.

The pullback to new defensive lines was to preserve units, the governor, Serhiy Gaidai, added in televised remarks.

“It’s unpleasant they’re leaving our settlements, but it is no catastrophe,” he added.

Ukraine’s military said in updates on Friday and early Saturday that Russia was trying to establish full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and secure a land connection to Crimea, and was partially blockading the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and before its Feb. 24 attacks, Russian-backed separatists controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the Donbas. A Russian general said on Friday that Moscow wanted full control of Donbas and also southern Ukraine, suggesting wider Russian aims than previously acknowledged.

Russia has said it is conducting a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and liberate its population from dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies call the invasion an unjustified war of aggression.

Russia said on Saturday it had shot down a Ukrainian fighter jet and destroyed three Ukrainian helicopters at an airfield in Kharkiv, a heavily bombarded city northwest of Donbas.

There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine regarding the Russian claims but the Ukrainian military said on Saturday it had destroyed 177 Russian aircraft and 154 helicopters since the start of the war.

Reuters could not independently verify the claims.

Russian forces made no major gains in the last 24 hours, British military intelligence said on Saturday.

Declaring victory in the biggest battle of the conflict so far, Russia said this week it had captured the southern port city of Mariupol and “securely blockaded” remaining Ukrainian troops who have been holed up in a huge steel works there.

Russian forces besieged and bombarded Mariupol - home to 400,000 people before the war - for weeks, leaving a city in ruins. Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have died and says 100,000 civilians are still there. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.

Satellite imagery from near Mariupol showed a second cemetery had been expanded in late March and early April at Vynohradne, with long new trenches likely to become new grave sites, the U.S.’ Maxar Technologies said on Friday.

The company had said on Thursday its imagery had located a separate burial site in another location near the city with more than 200 graves.

Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, was quoted by Russian state news agencies on Friday as saying full control over southern Ukraine would give it access to Transdniestria, a breakaway Russian-occupied part of Moldova in the west.

That would cut off Ukraine’s entire coastline and mean Russian forces pushing hundreds of miles further west, past the major coastal city of Odesa.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said after Minnekayev’s comments that Russia’s attack was just the beginning and that Moscow has designs on capturing other countries.

“We are the first in line. And who will come next?” he said in a video address late on Friday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on whether Russia had expanded its goals or on how Moscow saw the political future of southern Ukraine.

Zelensky said in his address that Ukraine’s allies were finally delivering weapons Kyiv has asked for.

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday he had authorised a further $800 million in military aid for Ukraine, including heavy artillery, ammunition and drones. Canada said on Friday it had provided more heavy artillery to Ukraine.

In the southern city of Mykolaiv, 87 civilians have died in the invasion, including one child, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich said late Friday on his Facebook page. Nearly 400 people have been wounded. Reuters could not independently verify this.

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