Moscow, April 19: Russia ratcheted up its battle for control of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland Tuesday, assaulting cities and towns along a boomerang-shaped front hundreds of miles long in what both sides described as a new phase of the war.
After a Russian push to overrun the capital failed, the Kremlin declared that its main goal was the capture of the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
If successful, that offensive would give President Vladimir Putin a vital piece of Ukraine and a badly needed victory in the now 7-week-old war that he could present to the Russian people amid mounting casualties and economic hardship caused by the West’s sanctions.
It would also effectively slice Ukraine in two and deprive it of the main industrial assets concentrated in the east, including coal mines, metals plants and machine-building factories.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that massive numbers of Russian troops were committed to the campaign, though some observers noted that an escalation has been underway there for some time and questioned whether this was truly the start of new offensive.
In what appeared to be an intensification of attacks, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that air-launched missiles destroyed 13 Ukrainian troop and weapons locations, while the air force struck 60 other Ukrainian military facilities, including missile warhead storage depots.
Russian artillery hit 1,260 Ukrainian military facilities and 1,214 troops concentrations over the last 24 hours, Konashenkov said Tuesday. The claims could not be independently verified.
The assaults began Monday along a front that stretches more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) from northeastern Ukraine to the country’s southeast.
Russia said it struck several areas with missiles, including the northeastern city of Kharkiv as well as as areas around Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro west of the Donbas.
Eyewitness accounts and reports from officials have given a broad picture of the extent of the Russian advance. But independent reporting in the parts of the Donbas held by Russian forces and separatists is severely limited, making it difficult to know what is happening in many places on the ground.
Moscow’s troops seized control of one town in the Donbas on Monday, according to Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said that the defensive line had held elsewhere.
The breakthrough in Kreminna takes the Russians one small step closer to their apparent goal of encircling Ukrainian troops in the region.
Key to the campaign to take the east is the capture of Mariupol, the port city in the Donbas that the Russians have besieged since the early days of the war and where shelling continued.
A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians’ estimate, were holed up in a sprawling steel plant, representing what was believed to be the last major pocket of resistance in the shattered city.
On Tuesday, Russia issued a new ultimatum to the Ukrainian defenders to surrender, saying those who come out will “keep their lives,” and said a cease-fire was being declared in the area so the combatants could leave the plant. The Ukrainians have ignored previous such offers, and there was no immediate confirmation a cease-fire occurred.