Russia is massing more troops and could soon dispatch fresh battalions for its major ground offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, foreign intelligence officials said Sunday, while Russian rocket attacks on the opposite side of the country reportedly injured more than 20 Ukrainians.
The attack on the western city of Chortkiv on Sunday offered a grim reminder that Russian forces still can strike virtually anywhere in Ukraine, despite focusing the bulk of their resources on the Donbas campaign.
Russian officials said the Chortkiv strike destroyed a Ukrainian weapons depot, though Ukrainian government leaders disputed that account and told Reuters that no arms were at the site.
Local leaders did confirm that at least 21 adults were injured in the attack. A 12-year-old child was also among the wounded, according to numerous media reports.
Russian forces blew up a bridge linking the embattled eastern city of Sievierodonetsk to nearby Lysychansk, Reuters reported, cutting off a key route in and out of the city and eliminating one of the few remaining avenues for civilians to escape.
The city of Sievierodonetsk has seen heavy fighting over the past several weeks. Despite a concerted Russian effort, the city remains contested, officials from Russia and Ukraine acknowledged over the weekend. Several hundred Ukrainian troops and several hundred civilians remained holed up in the city’s chemical plant, local officials said.
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Sievierodonetsk, and the Donbas more broadly, have become the epicenter of a war that has dragged on for more than three months, killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, and sparked massive economic fallout and fueled skyrocketing gas and food prices around the globe. Russia’s advance has been slow amid intense urban fighting, but foreign observers say Moscow’s troops are slowly gaining ground, thanks largely to their significant manpower advantage.
Moscow also appears ready to call up units to join the attack, putting renewed pressure on Ukrainian defenses and perhaps tilting the fight in their favor as a war of attrition unfolds.
“Russia is using its overmatch in force ratio and artillery to gradually seize territory in and around Sievierodonetsk,” the British Ministry of Defense said in its daily update on the Russia-Ukraine war.
“Russia continues to seek to generate more combat units to deploy to Ukraine,” the ministry said. “In recent weeks, it has likely started preparing to deploy the third battalion from some combat formations. Most brigades normally only commit a maximum of two of their three battalions to operations at any one time. The third battalions within brigades are often not fully staffed. Russia will likely have to rely on new recruits or mobilized reservists to deploy these units to Ukraine.”
Russia could pay the price in the long term, British officials said, and may not be able to replenish its losses quickly if it deploys more combat units to the front lines.
Ukrainian officials say they can continue inflicting heavy casualties on the Russian invaders. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Saturday that his country’s successes so far in fending off the Russian advance prove his forces are more than capable of defending their territory, including in the Donbas.
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“Remember how in Russia, in the beginning of May, they hoped to seize all of the Donbas?” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a video address. “It’s already the 108th day of the war, already June. Donbas is holding on.”
Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed that a former British soldier had been killed in battle. Relatives said Dean Gatley had left the British military to fight in Ukraine.
Two other British nationals face death sentences after being captured by pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
Even if the war drags on, Mr. Zelenskyy said, his forces must do everything in their power so the Russians will “regret everything that they have done and that they answer for every killing and every strike on our beautiful state.”
In remarks Sunday, Mr. Zelenskyy said Ukrainians believe the total number of Russian troops killed in the fighting could top 40,000 by early next month. The figure could not be verified independently but would dwarf Russia’s losses in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Other leading world powers are seeking an end to the conflict, but it’s clear that the two leading international players, the U.S. and China, have wildly different views about the war. Speaking at a major national security meeting in Singapore on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe said his country wants peace.
“China will continue to play a constructive role and contribute our share to easing tensions and realizing a political resolution of the crisis,” he said at the Shangri-La forum.
In a not-so-subtle shot at the U.S. and its NATO allies, Gen. Wei said nations supplying weapons to Ukraine are “adding fuel to the fire.” NATO members have provided significant amounts of weapons and other equipment to the Ukrainian military.
In his address at Shangri-La, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but put it in a much broader context.
“Let’s be clear: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all,” Mr. Austin said. “It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors. And it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”