Kremlin sends new troops to Ukraine as both sides prepare for a war of attrition

Russia is calling up troops based in its far east to join the battle in Ukraine, the Ukrainian military high command said on Saturday, as Moscow seeks to bolster its fighting force amid heavy losses and signs that its bid to capture the east from Ukraine stopped. .

Adding to the sense that both sides appeared to be preparing for a war of attrition, Ukrainians lined up Saturday at gas stations across the country as the government struggled to deal with fuel shortages caused by Russian attacks on infrastructure. of oil.

“Queues and rising prices at gas stations are seen in many regions of our country,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said Friday in his evening speech. “Occupants are deliberately destroying infrastructure for the production, supply and storage of fuel.”

He said a Russian blockade of Ukrainian seaports meant that replacement stocks could not arrive by tanker. The war also crippled grain crops in Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, disrupting global food supplies and worsening the food crisis in East Africa.

As Western allies dumped more heavy weapons on Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland, both NATO countries, reached an agreement that could foreshadow the transfer of MIG-29 warplanes to Ukraine. Slovakia said Polish F-16 jets would patrol its skies, releasing a Slovak fleet of Soviet-made MIGs.

After a meeting between the two countries’ defense ministers on Friday, Poland said its air force would start patrols over Slovakia as part of its joint efforts to help Ukraine.

Slovakia did not explicitly say it would send its MIGs to Ukraine, but it raised the possibility of doing so – provided it can find an alternative way to protect its airspace, which the agreement with Poland appears to achieve.

Last month, Poland refused to supply its own fleet of MIG-29s directly to Ukraine, offering to take the planes to a US military base in Germany where they could be flown to Ukraine. Washington, worried about provoking Russia, declined the offer.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov argued that the United States and the European Union, providing Ukraine with more powerful weapons, were fighting a proxy battle against Russia, regardless of the cost in civilian lives.

The flow of weapons from the West, Lavrov said, has nothing to do with supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, but rather would allow the United States and the European Union to fight Russia “to the last Ukrainian.”

Ukraine’s fuel shortages followed Russian attacks this week on Ukraine’s top producer of fuel products and other major refineries. Russia said it also hit storage facilities for petroleum products used by the Ukrainian military.

A senior Pentagon official said these types of attacks were intended to undermine the Ukrainian military’s ability to “replenish its own reserves and bolster itself”.

In response, authorities in Ukraine’s capital Kiev urged residents to use public transport instead of private vehicles to save fuel. “We need to keep in mind the needs of the military and our defenders,” the city government said.

The deployment of Kremlin troops from eastern Russia to the Ukrainian battlefront suggested that Moscow could be trying to regain momentum in what the Pentagon described as a “slow” offensive in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military said additional Russian forces were being sent first to a Russian town near the Ukrainian border and then to the town of Izium in northeastern Ukraine, where the Russians encountered fierce resistance. He did not say how many troops were being deployed.

Western analysts said Russia’s offensive in the east has slowed as it struggles to overcome many of the same logistical problems involving shipments of food, fuel, weapons and ammunition that hampered the initial phase of its invasion more than two months ago.

On Saturday, the British Defense Ministry said Russia was trying to fix problems that had constrained its invasion by geographically concentrating combat power, shortening supply lines and simplifying command and control.

But Russia “still faces considerable challenges”, the ministry said in its report. latest intelligence update in war. “He was forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from the failed advances in northeastern Ukraine. Many of these units are likely suffering from weakened morale.”

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken an increasingly heavy toll on both military personnel. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that its forces had fired on 389 targets across Ukraine, including facilities housing soldiers, killing 120 Ukrainians.

Ukraine said its Special Forces attacked a command center near Izium, destroying dozens of tanks and armored vehicles.

In a measure of the growing number of civilians, Ukrainian officials said police had received more than 7,000 missing person reports since the raid began on Feb. 24, with half of the cases still unsolved.

Ukrainian officials called the number “unprecedented in modern history” and called on allies to send in forensic experts and experts in managing missing persons records.

In a long-awaited but often frustrated development, in Mariupol, the ruined port of southern Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, some 20 women and children were evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks, where the city’s last Ukrainian fighters are holed up along with hundreds. of increasingly desperate soldiers. civilians.

The news, from Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment, came amid United Nations-backed efforts to negotiate a ceasefire to allow trapped civilians and Ukrainian fighters to escape the plant.

Captain Palamar said in a video posted to Telegram that an evacuation column had arrived at night to take civilians to safety, adding that he hoped the wounded soldiers would also have safe passage.

He did not provide further details, although Russian news agency TASS said one of its correspondents at the site reported that 25 people – including six children – had left the factory. It was not immediately clear whether they were free to seek safety in Ukraine or were being held by Russian forces.

Nearly a million Ukrainians have been transferred from Ukraine to Russia, Lavrov said in an interview published by Chinese state media on Saturday. He described the movements as voluntary “evacuations”, a claim that contradicted witnesses, Ukrainian officials and Western observers who said many Ukrainians were forcibly deported.

Lavrov’s statement echoed false claims in Russian propaganda that its forces are releasing ethnic Russians and others in Ukraine from what President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia calls the “openly neo-Nazi” Ukrainian government.

Ukraine has argued that Russia is carrying out the forced migration of its citizens, which is a war crime, to be used as leverage in any peace negotiations.

Ukraine also accused Russian forces of stealing cultural artifacts from occupied cities.

In Mariupol, city officials said Russian forces took more than 2,000 items – including icons, medals and works by Russian painters – from the city’s museums to Donetsk, capital of an eastern region controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

In the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, local officials said a mysterious man in a white coat had used tweezers and long gloves to extract dozens of gold artifacts over 2,300 years old from cardboard boxes at a local museum as a squad. of russians. soldiers were behind him with weapons, watching anxiously. Items were from the Scythian empire and dated to the 4th century BC

“The orcs have seized our Scythian gold,” declared Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fyodorov, using a derogatory term that many Ukrainians reserve for Russian soldiers. “This is one of the biggest and most expensive collections in Ukraine, and today we don’t know where they took it.”

A series of explosions inside Russia in recent weeks has also raised concerns about the war beyond Ukraine’s borders and set off the first air attack siren on Russian soil since World War II.

Incidents include a Russian fuel depot that burst into flames moments after surveillance video captured glowing streaks of rockets fired from low-flying helicopters and a fire that broke out at a military research institute near Moscow.

Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out the helicopter attack, while military analysts suggested that Ukrainian sabotage was likely responsible for other fires. Ukraine responded with deliberate ambiguity.

“We don’t confirm and we don’t deny it,” Oleksei Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, said in an interview.

Mr. Arestovych described the policy as a strategic stance and compared it to Israel’s long-standing policy of ambiguity over nuclear weapons, another issue of extraordinary geopolitical sensitivity.

“After what’s happening,” he said, “officially, we don’t say yes and we don’t say no, just like Israel.”

The report was contributed by Steven Erlanger, André Higgins, Maria Varenikova, John Ismay, Dave Phillips, Valeria Safronova, Lauren McCarthy, Victoria Kim, Christian Triebert, Aleksandra Koroleva, Andrew E. Kramer, Jeffrey Gettleman, Michael Schwirtz and Christine Hauser.

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