Ukraine is preparing for a new offensive in the Donbas, while Russia’s reinforcements are advancing

Ukraine and its international partners are preparing for Russia’s launch of a new offensive, and the Pentagon said on Monday that there are signs that the Kremlin has begun strengthening and supplying its forces in the eastern Donbas region, as a top official in Moscow promised that there would be none. cease hostilities before the next round of peace talks.

US intelligence has observed a massive Russian military convoy heading south towards Izyum, a strategically important city in northeastern Ukraine that Russia captured earlier this month and can now use as a space to carry out attacks on major cities to the south, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. The expectation, Kirby added, is that “the same brutal tactics, the same disregard for civilian life and civilian infrastructure, are likely to continue,” while Russian military leaders are concentrating on the Donbas.

The grim US assessment came amid renewed concerns about the potential for a chemical weapons attack, and when Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer became the first Western leader to meet face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the attack began in late February. According to officials in Vienna, Nehmer’s trip was intended to convey to the Russian leader that Putin had morally already lost the war.

“This is not a friendly visit,” the chancellor said in a statement. “I have just come from Ukraine and have seen with my own eyes the immense suffering caused by the Russian war of aggression.”

Amid global outrage over allegations that Russian troops were committing atrocities against civilians in areas around the capital Kyiv, French law enforcement officials are preparing to start working on related investigations after arriving in Ukraine on Monday. Prosecutors in France have opened several investigations into potential war crimes committed against French nationals there.

President Biden, meanwhile, met virtually with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urged him not to increase Russian energy imports as the international community seeks to put greater economic pressure on Moscow to end its war. Biden said after the meeting that the United States and India are in “close consultation” on dealing with the “destabilizing” effects of Russia’s actions.

While Russia has withdrawn from the suburbs of Kiev and other parts of northern Ukraine, Putin’s forces continue to attack elsewhere.

Russia has continued to fire artillery, rockets and mortars at the northern city of Kharkhiv, Ukrainian military officials said. Russian forces, they said, tried to storm the town of Sievierodonetsk in the Donbas region on Monday, but without success.

In a video broadcast via video to South Korean lawmakers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that Russia’s construction in eastern Ukraine includes “tens of thousands of troops and a huge amount of equipment.” With its new offensive, he said, Russia aims to “break our national resistance.”

Zelensky highlighted the devastation in Mariupol, a port city in the south that has been bombed for weeks.

“There are tens of thousands of dead,” the Ukrainian leader said in his speech. “But despite this, the Russians are not stopping the offensive. They want to make Mariupol a demonstratively devastated city. “

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said in an interview with the Associated Press that 10,000 civilians have been killed. He estimated that the death toll could double in the midst of the Russians’ relentless assault, which has made it difficult for rescue workers to reach the dead and wounded.

The Pentagon also estimated that the death toll in Mariupol could be as high as Zelensky described.

“I do not think anyone really wants to know until the Ukrainian authorities are able to come in and see and see,” Kirby said. “But if you just look at the pictures and you see how much the Russians have beaten Mariupol from the air, it’s unthinkable to imagine that there will be no civilian casualties and that there could be a significant number.”

Zelensky said in a separate video address released late Monday that the Kiev government is taking “as seriously as possible” an apparent threat to unleash chemical weapons on the Ukrainian units left in Mariupol, which earlier in the day claimed on social media that such an attack had already taken place there.

Kirby acknowledged that U.S. officials were aware of these allegations but were unable to confirm their correctness, saying the Pentagon would monitor the situation closely. “If these reports are true, they are deeply worrying and reflect the concerns we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of means of rioting, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine.”

The Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rescuers on Monday pulled seven more bodies from ruins in Borodyanka, an area northwest of Kiev that was destroyed by airstrikes. The dead were found in the rubble of two apartment buildings, the Ukrainian emergency services said in a Telegram notice. Nineteen victims have been removed from the rubble, according to the update, and rescue efforts are continuing.

A senior EU official, Josep Borrell, said he “witnessed the brutal, brutal aggression of Russian troops against the civilian population” during an official visit to Kiev with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and that the EU would support work done. by prosecutors from Ukraine and the International Criminal Court to gather evidence of possible war crimes committed by Russian forces.

Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, predicted that more bloodshed is pending as Russia gathers forces in the east and prepares to intensify operations in the coming days.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under conditions set by the Pentagon, said it was unclear when Russia could launch the new attack, but that there were signs that it was preparing to do so. . So far, this official said, Russia has strengthened its military position around the city of Donetsk, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian separatists for several years, adding artillery units to the southwest.

The convoy, which is now pushing south from the Russian border, includes a command element, a support battalion, helicopter support and infantrymen for security, the US official said, calling it “clear evidence” that Russia is already pursuing its goal of conquering the Donbas after to have failed to take Kiev. Russia has focused most of its airstrikes in recent days on the Donbas region, the official said.

Moscow’s decision to appoint General Alexander Dvornikov as its supreme leader in Ukraine is unlikely to change Russia’s tactics, US officials said. Dvornikov has been dubbed the “Butcher of Syria” for the violence his forces have inflicted during Russia’s military campaign there over the past few years.

“We are probably turning another page in the same book on Russian brutality,” Kirby told reporters Monday.

Russia will not halt its military operations in Ukraine until the next round of peace talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday in an interview with state television channel Rossiya 24. He added that while Putin had ordered a temporary halt to military action during a early round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegates, Moscow has since changed its position.

“After we were convinced that the Ukrainians did not plan to retaliate, a decision was made that during the next rounds of negotiations there would be no break until a final agreement has been reached and signed,” Lavrov said.

In the interview, Lavrov also seemed to rework Moscow’s goals, saying that its operations in Ukraine are intended to end the US course “against world domination.” Russian officials have previously justified their invasion by calling it an attempt to “denazify” Ukraine.

Amid the bloodshed, the UN Development Program announced a new initiative to support Ukraine over the next two years as it seeks to deal with the devastation and rebuild its institutions for a possible post-war future.

The program will provide services on the ground, including repairing infrastructure, removing dirt and new ways of generating income for those who have lost their jobs, UN officials said. They cited previous research that found that the war could wipe out 18 years of socio-economic progress in Ukraine if it is not resolved resolutely, and soon.

“The war in Ukraine continues to inflict enormous human suffering,” UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said in a statement. Early estimates, he said, “projects that close to two decades of socio-economic progress could be lost if the war continues – with 9 out of 10 people at risk of falling into poverty.”

Lamothe reported from Washington, Bellware from Chicago and Ilyushina from Riga, Latvia. David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, Anabelle Timsit in London and Karoun Demirjian, Reis Thebault, Felicia Sonmez and Paulina Firozi of Washington contributed to this report.

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