(CNN) – As the Russian war in Ukraine entered a crucial new phase, fighting intensified in the east of the country and officials warned of a battle “that will remind us of World War II.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Thursday that fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine was escalating but “has not reached an extreme”.
“The Donbass battle will remind us of World War II with major operations and maneuvers involving thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft and artillery. It will not be a local operation based on what we see in Russia’s preparations,” he said. Koleba at a press conference in Brussels.
“Russia has its plan, we have our plan, and the battlefield will decide the outcome,” he added.
On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the authorities expect in the coming weeks to resupply and reposition Russian forces with the aim of launching a new brutal offensive in the Donbass, including the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“We are now seeing a major movement of forces away from Kyiv to regroup, rearm, resupply and shift focus to the east,” he told reporters in Brussels. This is a crucial stage of the war.”
A large part of the region had already faced a relentless attack. A Ukrainian military commander in the city told CNN Wednesday evening that Russian forces are trying to wipe the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol “from the face of the earth.”
Serhiy Volina, deputy commander of the Mariupol naval battalion, which has been fighting in the region since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, described the situation as “dangerous”.
“It is a humanitarian catastrophe, and the soldiers who participated in the fighting here are completely surrounded. There are problems with the supply of water, food, medicine and supplies in general. It is a very difficult situation,” he added.
“We have been trapped in Mariupol for more than 40 days. The enemy is outnumbered and outnumbered by us, its artillery, it has naval artillery, tanks, armored vehicles and, of course, mortars. This is difficult for us,” Volina said.
On Wednesday, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also listed the cities of Volnovaka, Izyum and Popasna as places where there had been “reports of numerous civilian casualties”. The head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, Oleg Senegubov, said in a statement on Telegram that Russian forces carried out 27 attacks on residential areas in the northeastern city of Kharkiv on Tuesday evening.
Control of Mariupol would allow Russia to create a land corridor connecting Crimea to the Donbass, allowing troops to move freely from the south of the peninsula to reinforce their units on the mainland.
But the Russian forces have not yet managed to break the Ukrainian resistance in the east. They are likely to try to encircle the Ukrainian fighters in the east in the coming weeks, and whether or not they succeed, it could be crucial to determining the course of the war.
Russia is changing course
Since the start of the war, Russia has used a devastating range of air strikes across most of the country, using the massively devastating missile and artillery fire that has spread to the center and west of the country.
But the faltering ground campaign and a series of military setbacks, particularly around the capital Kyiv and in the north, mean that Moscow has made far less progress than most analysts expected in terms of territorial control.
Russian fighters withdrew from the Kyiv region this week after Ukrainian forces retook control of the area containing the capital, while Russia also failed to achieve full air superiority over Ukraine and incurred heavy personnel losses since the invasion began.
Now Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be changing tack. Putin has revised his war strategy to focus on trying to gain control of Donbass and other areas of eastern Ukraine with a target date set for early May, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the latest U.S. intelligence assessments.
To achieve this goal, Stoltenberg said, NATO expects Russia to carry out a “highly focused” offensive in the east with the goal of capturing the entire Donbass region.
It is still too early to say whether Putin has finally given up on his goal of capturing Kyiv and defeating the resistance throughout Ukraine. But his shift in focus comes after a series of losses elsewhere in the country hampered his conquest and strained his forces.
New main battlefields
It is now expected that the Russian forces will try to isolate the Ukrainian forces in the east and consolidate their forces throughout the region.
This means that attention will likely soon turn to the city of Sloviansk, as Russian units are advancing north from Izium.
The Ukraine-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said: “The efforts of Russian forces to advance from Izyum to seize Slovensk will likely become the next decisive battle of the war in Ukraine.” The City of Washington, in its update Monday on the conflict in Ukraine. His report uses different phonetic writing of the names of cities and towns in Ukraine.
A successful Russian attack on the city would give Moscow the option to join forces with those fighting in Robyzhny, northeastern Sloviansk, or move them south towards Horlivka and Donetsk in an effort to encircle the Ukrainian fighters there. The group added.
“If Russian forces are not able to capture Slovensk, it is unlikely that Russian frontal attacks in Donbass will independently penetrate Ukrainian defenses and then Russia’s campaign to seize the entire Luhansk and Donetsk provinces will fail,” ISW said.
Vadim Denisenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, agreed on Thursday that the “most difficult situation” Ukraine now faces is in the east of the country, where Ukraine’s military says it has seen a build-up of Russian troops.
“Unfortunately, the Russians are still doing everything they did before in Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, etc. – destroying civilian infrastructure,” he said.
“The situation now is very difficult in the direction of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk,” Denisenko said.
“These are the main points of this stage of the war. I think, in fact, that the outcome of, at least this stage of this war, will depend to a large extent on the fighting in the East.”
What is the current situation in the East?
Cities of eastern Ukraine have been under constant and devastating attacks by the Russians for several weeks.
Mariupol, located at the southern tip of Donetsk province, was especially destroyed, and became a symbol of the brutality of the Russian war. At a round table held on Wednesday, the mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boychenko, stated that more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure had been destroyed by Russia and that at least 40% of it was “no longer recoverable”.
Boychenko, citing preliminary estimates, said that in the first month of the invasion, 5,000 people died in the city, including about 210 minors.
Meanwhile, Lucille Marbeau, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told CNN on Wednesday that the humanitarian situation in Mariupol was “getting worse.” “Right now there’s nothing, no water, no electricity, hardly any communication,” Marbeau said.
But Mariúpol is not the only one; Heavy fighting is raging across eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities said on Wednesday, as the regional military governor of the eastern Luhansk region urged civilians to evacuate some towns.
“If we talk about the main directions in which the battles will break out, it is Sloviansk,” said Vadim Denisenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. [región de Donetsk] and Barvinkovve [región de Járkiv]in the Luhansk region they are found in the Popasna and Rubizhne regions and, of course, in Mariupol. ”
Serhi Heidi, the military governor of Luhansk region, issued a statement on Wednesday calling for the evacuation of several cities in the region. “The Russians are destroying the railways in the Donetsk region,” he said on Telegram.
“We will take everyone out if the Russians allow us access to the meeting places,” he said. “As you can see, they do not always respect the ‘cease-fire regime’.”
What does Putin want in eastern Ukraine?
Pro-Russian separatists took control of parts of the Donbass region in 2014, when Moscow responded to protests that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president by fomenting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Since then fighting has broken out in that area.
When Putin began his invasion by sending troops into eastern Ukraine on February 22, he claimed that protecting the Donbass population from “genocide” by the Ukrainian authorities was one motive, a false claim vigorously rejected by Ukraine and society. international.
It came after days of baseless claims about Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Russia’s decision to recognize two regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, which are controlled by pro-Russian separatists, as independent. And since the start of a full-scale war two days later, the supposed liberation of Donbass has played a major role in the Kremlin’s speech.
In the first weeks of the invasion, there was bombing of cities and towns far from that part of Ukraine; Invading from the north, east, and south, Russia focused much of its attention on Kyiv and other major cities, with attacks reaching Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine.
But a revision of his strategy prompted Putin to refocus his attention on the region that was at the center of his attempts to justify the invasion. Daily summaries of the Russian Defense Ministry have tried to focus on successes in these areas, and over the past week, several officials have described the Donbass region as the main target of the operation, with other measures designed simply to immobilize Ukrainian forces.
“In the coming weeks, we expect a new Russian push in eastern and southern Ukraine to try to capture the entire Donbass and create a land bridge to occupied Crimea,” Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.
Several US officials familiar with the latest US intelligence assessments said that after six difficult weeks of war, Putin is under pressure to show he can win, and eastern Ukraine is where he is most likely to be able to do so quickly. According to one of the officials, objections from US intelligence services indicate that Putin is focusing on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day”.
But other officials point out that even if there is a Russian celebration, actual victory may be remote.
“Putin will organize a victory parade on May 9, regardless of the state of war or peace talks,” a European defense official said. On the other hand, reviewing a victory by what forces and mechanisms?
– Nathan Hodge, Tim Lister, Evan Watson, AnneClaire Stapleton, Niamh Kennedy, Chris Liakos, Olga Voitovych, Barbara Starr, Jim Sciutto, Alex Marquardt, Jeremy Herb, y Katie Bo Lillis Contribuyeron con este reportaje.