Russia steps up Donbass offensive as war enters fourth month

Russian forces stepped up their offensive against the last pocket of resistance around Lugansk in Ukraine’s Donbass region on Tuesday as the conflict entered its fourth month.

Since invading Moscow in late February, Western support has helped Ukraine set back its neighbor’s advances in many areas – including the capital kyiv – but Russia is now focused on securing and expanding its gains in the Donbass and the southern coast.

“The next few weeks of the war will be difficult, and we must be aware of that,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening speech on Monday after regional leaders and residents reported heavy shelling.

“The most difficult combat situation today is in the Donbass,” Zelensky said, citing the hardest-hit cities of Bakhmut, Popasna and Severodonetsk.

The governor of Luhansk in Donbass said Russia had sent thousands of troops to take over his entire region and Severodonetsk was under massive attack, warning residents it was too late to clear out.

“At this point, I will not say: get out, evacuate. Now I will say: stay in a shelter,” Sergiy Gaidai said on Telegram. “Because such a density of bombardments will not allow us to calmly gather people together and pick them up.”

Residents of Bakhmut, a crucial crossroads that serves as a command center for much of Ukraine’s war effort, told AFP of the airstrike they had suffered.

“I looked up from my prayers and heard a scary noise,” said Maria Mayashlapak, 82, next to the shattered remains of her home.

“Every day I pray to God asking him to avoid injury. God heard me. God is watching over me.”

Davos Call

Zelensky said in his speech that Russia carried out nearly 1,500 missile strikes and more than 3,000 airstrikes against Ukraine in the first three months of the war.

The president earlier warned elites gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos – from which the Russians were excluded this year – that slow military aid was causing unnecessary deaths as Ukrainians “pay dearly for freedom and independence”.

He said 87 people were killed in a Russian attack earlier this month on a military base in the north, in what would be one of the largest recorded strikes of the war.

Western countries sent huge amounts of arms and money to Ukraine to help it repel Russia’s onslaught and punished Moscow with unprecedented economic sanctions.

But Zelensky said via video link that tens of thousands of lives would have been saved if kyiv had received “100% of our needs at once in February”, when Russia invaded.

He also stepped up his demands for Moscow to be cut off from the global economy, calling for an international oil embargo on Russia, as well as punitive measures against all its banks and shunning of its IT sector.

Guilty verdict

A 21-year-old Russian soldier was convicted on Monday of war crimes for killing an unarmed civilian and sentenced to life in prison by a kyiv court, in the first such verdict since the invasion began.

Vadim Shishimarin watched from a glass defense box as he was sentenced in a trial watched around the world – likely the first in many as Ukraine investigates thousands of alleged war crimes .

The Siberian sergeant had admitted to killing a 62-year-old civilian, Oleksandr Shelipov, while riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in northeastern Ukraine.

He claimed he shot Shelipov under pressure from another soldier as they tried to retreat and escape to Russia in a stolen car on February 28.

But prosecutors said he fired between three and four bullets with the intent to kill the civilian, and Judge Sergiy Agafonov sentenced him to life.

International institutions are also investigating abuses allegedly committed by Russian forces in places such as Bucha and Mariupol, which have become emblematic of the destruction and suffering of war.

Councilor resigns

Meanwhile, an adviser to Moscow’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Boris Bondarev, announced he was leaving his post after 20 years of diplomatic service in protest against the Russian invasion.

In the letter distributed to several diplomatic missions in Geneva and consulted by AFP, he condemned the war as “not only a crime against the Ukrainian people but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the Russian people”.

“Never have I been so ashamed of my country,” he said.

More than 6 million people have fled Ukraine and 8 million have been displaced since the start of the war, according to the United Nations.

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