KYIV, Ukraine — Russian airstrikes pounded Ukrainian towns far from the front lines on Friday as Moscow’s ground offensive appeared to reposition some forces in the north of the country, which Western authorities fear could be a prelude to a new attack on the capital.
Missiles hit airports at dawn in the western Ukrainian cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk, where attacks have been rare since the invasion began more than two weeks ago .
In eastern Ukraine, three missiles landed in the town of Dnipro, where city officials said a building and a kindergarten had been destroyed.
Western officials have questioned whether the relative lull in Russian aggression around Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was part of an effort to reposition forces and lay the groundwork for a new push. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said it fears Russia will try to reset for another attack in the coming days, including an offensive against Kiev.
The large Russian military convoy last seen northwest of Kiev has widely dispersed and redeployed, Maxar Technologies said. Maxar, which tracked the convoy with satellite imagery, said it documented armored units maneuvering in towns near Antonov Airport, northwest of Kyiv. Maxar said the footage shows convoy elements being repositioned near the town of Lubyanka, outside Kyiv, with artillery howitzers towed into nearby firing position.
The Ukrainian resistance successfully thwarted Russian forces in carrying out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to take Kiev and overthrow its government. The Ukrainians repelled Russian assaults on some of the country’s largest cities and launched counterattacks against Russian convoys, using Turkish-made drones and Western anti-tank munitions.
Still, Russian forces advanced along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, surrounding the city of Mariupol. The daily bombardment of Mariupol, including a strike against a maternity hospital, has left the city of more than 400,000 people without food, clean water or electricity.
In Moscow, the Kremlin announced plans to move more forces to its western border and bring in what it described as volunteers from the Middle East to fight in Ukraine. Russia has recruited Syrians skilled in urban combat as its invasion is set to expand deeper into Ukrainian cities.
More than 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East have asked to fight on behalf of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised meeting with Mr Putin , according to reports in Russian state media.
“We must support them and help them enter the zone of military operations,” Putin said. He also asked security officials to prepare plans to strengthen Russia’s western borders and counter efforts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to bolster its members in Eastern Europe.
Mr Putin expressed his support for international volunteers in response to foreign fighters arriving in Ukraine to help Kyiv.
The Kremlin is also stepping up efforts to restrict news in the country, in retaliation against Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms Inc. for allowing calls for violence against Russian soldiers. A temporary change to the social media company’s political expression policies allows Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to use violent language about Russian soldiers in the context of the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s attorney general’s office said in a statement on Friday that it had asked a court to have Meta declared an “extremist organization” and bar the company from operating in the country. A spokesperson for Mr Putin said that if the reports on the policy were accurate, “it requires the most decisive actions to block the activities of this company”, without specifying what additional measures could be taken.
Meta declined to comment.
Western officials are also increasingly concerned that Moscow may resort to deploying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons after struggling to make progress in the first two weeks of the war.
In a speech late Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia was setting the stage for such an escalation by baselessly claiming that the United States was funding biological warfare efforts in Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Washington supports research that could allow the spread of disease from wild birds migrating between Russia and Ukraine, adding that “biological laboratories established and funded in Ukraine have experimented with coronavirus samples of bats”.
The White House has dismissed the charges, saying the alleged use of biological or chemical weapons could mark Russian efforts to lay the groundwork for their own use of such weapons.
“It makes me really worried, because we have been convinced many times: if you want to know Russia’s plans, you should look at what Russia is accusing others of,” Zelensky said.
The invasion of Russia triggered the fastest-accelerating refugee crisis since World War II. The number of people fleeing war has reached 2.5 million, the UN refugee agency said on Friday. Two million more people are internally displaced in Ukraine, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a Twitter post.
EU leaders were attending a two-day summit at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, to discuss the refugee crisis as well as ways to reduce the bloc’s dependence on energy imports from Russia . European leaders also aim to increase economic pressure on Russia and Belarus following the invasion of Ukraine.
EU leaders pledged on Friday morning to impose new sanctions after adopting sweeping measures against Russia’s central bank, imposing export bans, sanctioning senior Russian officials and excluding Russian banks from the network of financial transactions. Swift.
Some 100,000 Ukrainians have joined the Territorial Defense Forces, the country’s volunteer force organized to resist the Russian invasion, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Friday. He also said that 215,000 Ukrainians have returned home to help defend their country.
“What is happening in Ukraine is the Ukrainian liberation war against the Russian invasion. In Ukraine, nobody waits for Russians with flowers,” he said, speaking via a video link to a diplomatic conference in Turkey.
—Sam Schechner and Laurence Norman contributed to this article.
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