- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Russia marched ahead Tuesday with the “new phase” of its war in Ukraine, capturing the eastern city of Kreminna and launching missile strikes across the disputed Donbas region even as evidence emerged of the devastating toll the war is having on the global economy.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was out of the public eye for nearly two months, reappeared to say his military forces are implementing their plan to “liberate” the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia recognizes the two areas as independent republics, though they are official parts of Ukraine. Russian officials said their military over two days hit more than 1,200 Ukrainian positions, including bases, weapons depots and targets in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

South of Kharkiv, Russian troops reportedly captured Kreminna, a city with a population of about 19,000 on the western edge of the Luhansk region. It was the first significant city to fall into the hands of the invaders since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the operation on Feb. 24. The capture of Kreminna is a step forward for the Kremlin, which has had to abandon hopes for a lightning victory and has pulled back forces after failing to take Kyiv.

Russia’s retooled plan seeks to overrun eastern Ukraine and create a land bridge between the Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.

Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, acknowledged that Russian forces were in control of Kreminna but said Ukrainian defenders had re-formed a defensive line to protect the strategic military hub of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region.

“Our defenders had to withdraw,” Mr. Haidai said in a briefing, the British newspaper The Guardian reported. “They have entrenched themselves in new positions and continue to fight the Russian army.”

SEE ALSO: Russian fuel flows through Ukraine uninterrupted by war

Ukrainian officials said a successful counterattack reclaimed the city of Maryinka in the Donetsk region, forcing occupying Russian forces to give way. Russia claimed to have captured the city a month ago.

The port city of Mariupol, which is key to Russia’s ambitions and has been the site of immense human suffering and death, remained contested. Ukrainian forces were holding out in crucial parts of the city despite massive bombardments and airstrikes.

With Russia giving up on attempts to capture Kyiv, U.S. defense officials warned that Moscow likely learned from its mistakes in the northern theater and could embark on an even more brutal wartime strategy in the south and east that could drive up the already staggering civilian death toll.

Ukrainian military officials described the events of Monday and Tuesday as a “new phase of war” in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged the change.

“Another phase of this operation is starting now,” he said Tuesday.

The Russian Defense Ministry said artillery fire hit 1,260 targets along the 300-mile front line in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions.

SEE ALSO: American troops to train Ukrainians on U.S.-provided cannons

Russian troops ramped up their campaign despite growing calls for a temporary cease-fire to allow innocent civilians to escape the carnage. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a four-day Orthodox Holy Week pause in the hostilities, though Russian forces showed no signs of adhering to such a request.

“The four-day Easter period should be a moment to unite around saving lives and furthering dialogue to end the suffering in Ukraine,” the U.N. chief said. 

The White House said President Biden hosted another videoconference with fellow Western leaders to discuss the course of the war and reaffirm support for the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Among those on the call were British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Ukrainian armed forces chief Valeriy Zaluzhny said on his Telegram account that he had briefed Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the heavy fighting in his country’s south and east, the Interfax news service reported.

On a visit to New Hampshire, Mr. Biden told reporters he was ready to ship more artillery to Ukraine as its military battled Russian forces in the Donbas, even before the first consignment of surplus howitzers was loaded up and sent to the battlefield.

The Pentagon delivered $800 million worth of military hardware to Kyiv, including more than 5,000 Javelin anti-armor systems and 75,000 sets of body armor and helmets.

The Pentagon said it has located 18 155-mm howitzers that will be sent to Ukraine. Defense Department officials were confident that they could draw 40,000 artillery rounds from prepositioned stocks in Europe to go with the cannons.

“It won’t take very long to get the artillery rounds where they need to be,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Meanwhile, global financial leaders warned that the massive fallout from Russia’s invasion will stretch around the world and dramatically slow economic growth. 

“The war in Ukraine has triggered a costly humanitarian crisis that demands a peaceful resolution,” the International Monetary Fund said in an updated global outlook released Tuesday at its annual meeting in Washington. “At the same time, economic damage from the conflict will contribute to a significant slowdown in global growth in 2022 and add to inflation. Fuel and food prices have increased rapidly, hitting vulnerable populations in low-income countries hardest.”

Global growth rates, the 190-nation IMF said, are “projected to slow from an estimated 6.1% in 2021 to 3.6% in 2022 and 2023. This is 0.8 and 0.2 percentage points lower for 2022 and 2023 than projected in January.”

A global ‘game-changer’

Economics are just one consequence of the Russian military campaign. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled their country and have flooded into other European nations, sparking a potential crisis for governments struggling with rising food costs and skyrocketing fuel prices.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has upended life across the continent, French Ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne said Tuesday. 

“For Europe, it means the comeback of war to Europe, the flow of refugees, more than 10% of the population of Ukraine now on the territory of member states of the European Union. … It is not only a shock, but it’s also a historical change, which means it called for historical decisions on our side,” he said at a Hudson Institute event in Washington.

“This war is a game-changer,” he said.

Mr. Etienne said the European Union is evaluating plans to bring Ukraine into the fold, though he acknowledged the complexities of such a move, particularly on the economic front.

The strengthening of Ukraine’s ties to the West has been one clear result of the Russian invasion. Other European nations, such as Finland and Sweden, are now considering joining NATO. The move would strengthen the alliance and deepen its presence on Moscow’s doorstep.

Such developments are the opposite of what Mr. Putin intended. His invasion was designed to pull Ukraine away from the West and back into Moscow’s orbit, and to split NATO and expose underlying divisions among members of the Western military alliance.

Instead, the West has remained mostly united and has moved in concert with an unprecedented onslaught of economic sanctions that have shaken the Russian economy to its core.

At the same time, the clear failures of the Russian invasion — including poor logistical planning, a lack of food and supplies for troops, and other significant missteps that ultimately doomed the battle for Kyiv — have sparked optimism in Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe that Mr. Putin’s attack could end in an embarrassing defeat.

Russian forces have concentrated in the east for a major offensive in the Donbas, but military analysts said there is no guarantee that their mission will succeed. Highly motivated Ukrainian defenders have proved more nimble and determined in clashes across the country and have been bolstered by an accelerating flood of weapons from the West.

“Russian forces did not take the operational pause that was likely necessary to reconstitute and properly integrate damaged units withdrawn from northeastern Ukraine into operations in eastern Ukraine,” researchers with the Institute for the Study of War wrote in a Monday analysis. “As we have assessed previously, Russian forces withdrawn from around Kyiv and going back to fight in Donbas have, at best, been patched up and filled out with soldiers from other damaged units, and the Russian military has few, if any, cohesive units not previously deployed to Ukraine to funnel into new operations.

“Frequent reports of disastrously low Russian morale and continuing logistics challenges indicate the effective combat power of Russian units in eastern Ukraine is a fraction of their on-paper strength in numbers of battalion tactical groups,” they wrote. “Russian forces may certainly be able to wear down Ukrainian positions in eastern Ukraine through the heavy concentration of firepower and sheer weight of numbers, but likely at a high cost.”

Mr. Shoigu, 66, defended the Russian campaign in the Donbas. His low profile for nearly all of the eight-week invasion stoked speculation that either he had been ill or had been sidelined because of the checkered performance of Russian forces.

He was shown in a televised meeting telling Russian military commanders, “We are gradually implementing our plan to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.”

Agence France-Presse reported that Mr. Shoigu accused the U.S. and NATO allies of “doing everything to drag out” the struggle through arms shipments and other support for the government in Kyiv. 

Mr. Kirby said the U.S. was prepared to consider more weapons and ammunition shipments to Ukraine.

It is “certainly within the realm of the possible” that Ukraine will require more artillery systems and ammunition as the conflict intensifies, Mr. Kirby said. If necessary, the Pentagon will be able to dip again into its stock and locate additional howitzers.

“If the Ukrainians desire more artillery support, then we’re going to flow additional artillery support,” he said.

• David R. Sands and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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