Peril to civilians grows as Russia eyes eastern Ukraine

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky telling compatriots to brace for a fateful week, Western military officials warned Monday that Russian forces will likely resort to even more brutal tactics against civilians in a looming offensive in the country’s south and east.

Nearly seven weeks into a war in which the Kremlin has attained virtually none of its strategic objectives, Russian President Vladimir Putin was expected Monday to hold his first face-to-face talks with a European leader since launching the Feb. 24 invasion. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced the planned meetingdeclaring that Russia’s “war of aggression” must cease.

Austria is a member of the European Union, which has imposed stringent sanctions against Russia, but is militarily neutral and not a member of NATO — a status that in the past has allowed it to maintain closer links with Moscow. But Nehammer, who met over the weekend with Zelensky, has demanded a war-crimes investigation against Russia, which has denied its troops to have committed atrocities against civilians.

European leaders, meanwhile, signaled that more sanctions against Moscow may be in the works. But the bloc is running out of ways to try to force Putin to break off the biggest ground war in Europe in decades, which has triggered the continent’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 4.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the latest UN figures, and around another 7 million are internally displaced.

“Sanctions are always on the table,” the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told reporters as he headed into a meeting on Monday with the bloc’s foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

The US, for its part, was stepping up diplomatic efforts to bring more countries into the anti-Russia coalition. President Biden was to hold a virtual meeting Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India is a US ally, but has not imposed any sanctions against Russia. Among a four-nation group of allies known colloquially as the Quad — the US, Japan, Australia and India — Biden has previously described India as the only “somewhat shaky” country regarding Ukraine.

A man mourns in front of a fresh grave.

Oleg, 56, mourns for his mother Inna, 86, who was killed during the war against Russia in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday.

(Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

With a ferocious new phase of the war considered all but certain, Ukrainian civilians continued to try to escape from what is expected to become the next main battleground, the country’s eastern industrial heartland and its southern seacoasts.

Even with nearly another 3,000 people fleeing those areas on Sunday, according to Ukrainian officials, the pace of the exodus has been slowed by fear of more attacks like the one on a railway station last week in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, whose death toll has risen to at least 57.

Zelensky said Monday that Russia’s ongoing assault on the southern port of Mariupol had “destroyed” the city and left ten of thousands of people dead. Mariupol is almost completely cut off, and the figure could not be independently confirmed.

“Despite this, the Russians are not stopping their offensive,” the leader told South Korea’s parliament in the latest in a Ukrainian series of near-daily video addresses to lawmakers around the world to drum up support and plead for more weaponry for his beleaguered country .

Since the start of the war, Moscow’s forces have sought to capture Mariupol in order to establish a land corridor between Russian-controlled areas of the east and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized eight years ago.

A British military intelligence assessment on Monday warned that Russia may resort to the phosphorus weapons in its bid to finally secure control of the city, and said civilians in many areas were imperiled by the invaders’ use of indiscriminate firepower.

“Russia’s continued reliance on unguided bombs decreases their ability to discriminate when targeting and conducting strikes, while greatly increasing the risk of further civilian casualties,” the assessment said.

Artillery strikes rocked several eastern cities early Monday. Air-raid sirens also wailed in the southern city of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, where a massive blast reverberated late Sunday. The regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said in a video posted Monday that it was a missile strike that caused no deaths.

In his overnight video address, Zelensky said Russia was trying to evade responsibility for war crimes such as the reign of terror visited on areas outside Kyiv during a monthlong occupation before abandoning the bid to swiftly seize the capital city and topple the Ukrainian government.

Investigators and Ukrainian forces have been on the ground daily in satellite towns outside Kyiv, recovering bodies of civilians, many killed execution-style and thrown into mass graves. Forensic specialists from France arrived Monday to help with the preservation of evidence. Ukrainian officials say the count of fatalities in those outlying areas has surpassed 1,200.

“We are doing everything we can to bring to justice every bastard who came to our land under the Russian flag and killed our people, who tortured our people, destroyed our cities, looted and tormented,” Zelensky said.

He added that the coming week will be as “tense” as any in the course of the war, as Russian forces prepare to stage “even larger operations in the east of our state.”

In laying groundwork for that offensive, Russian missiles strikes destroyed the central city of Dnipro’s airport in a missile strike on Sunday, Ukrainian officials acknowledged. But Ukrainian forces have also repulsed several assaults in eastern regions, “resulting in the destruction of Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery equipment,” the British military assessment said.

Russian forces kept up unrelenting strikes on the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest. The regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that 11 people, including a child, died in bombardment on Sunday, with Russia “again attacking peaceful civilians.”

Fears over the fate of Ukrainian civilians were heightened with word over the weekend that Russia has appointed a military chief notorious for atrocities in Syria to oversee the Kremlin’s war effort. The appointment of Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, Western officials say, suggests that the deliberate targeting of civilians, a hallmark of Russia’s war strategy, is likely to continue.

Adding to the sense of menace, the notorious Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been leading fighters in Ukraine from his Ukrainian Russian republic, declared Monday that he was a loyal “foot soldier” to Putin and suggested that cities faced devastation if resistance to the Russian assault continues.

“Don’t let Kyiv be destroyed, Kharkiv and other cities,” Kadyrov, who has been sanctioned for human rights abuses, wrote in a Telegram post that also mentioned Mariupol and the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Russia’s military setbacks since the start of the invasion have been plainly visible, but more detail is emerging about the nature of its losses. The British Broadcasting Corp. reported more than 20% of the military personnel confirmed dead were officers, including specialists like fighter pilots and veteran commanders.

Bulos reported from Mykolaiv and King from Warsaw.

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