Russia attacks Ukrainian cities, deploys more troops for war

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia threw its military might against Ukrainian cities and towns and poured more troops into the war, trying to cut the country in half in a potentially crucial battle for control of the eastern industrial heart of coal mines and factories.

The fighting took place along a boomerang-shaped front hundreds of kilometers long in what is known as the Donbas. If successful, it would give President Vladimir Putin a victory after Moscow’s failed attempt to storm the capital Kiev, with more than expected casualties.

In Mariupol, the ruined port city in the Donbas, Ukrainian troops said the Russian army dropped heavy bombs to hit what was left of a sprawling steel factory – believed to be the defenders’ last foothold – and a hospital where hundreds were staying.

The Ukrainian General Staff said on Wednesday that Russia continues to mount offensives in several locations in the east as its forces search for weaknesses in Ukraine’s lines. The General Staff said in a statement that defeating the last resistance at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol remains Russia’s top priority.

The eastern cities of Kharkiv and Kramatorsk were fatally attacked. Russia also said it hit areas around Zaporizhzhya and Dnipro west of the Donbas with missiles.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow troops have bombed numerous Ukrainian military sites, including troop concentrations and warhead depots, in or near several cities or towns. Those claims could not be independently verified.

Both sides have described the attack that began Monday as a new phase of the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russian military is throwing everything it has into battle, with most of its battle-ready troops now concentrated in Ukraine and just across the border into Russia.

“They have expelled almost everyone and everything capable of fighting against Ukraine,” he said in his overnight video address to the nation.

Despite claims that they are only attacking military sites, the Russians continue to attack residential areas and kill civilians, he said.

“The Russian army in this war will forever write itself in world history as the most barbaric and inhumane army in the world,” Zelenskyy said.

Weeks ago, after the failed Russian attempt to take Kiev, the Kremlin declared its main aim was to capture the largely Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists had been battling Ukrainian forces for eight years.

A Russian victory in the Donbas would rob Ukraine of the industrial assets concentrated there, including mines, metal works and heavy equipment plants.

A senior US defense official, speaking anonymously to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said the Russians had added two more combat units known as tactical battalion groups in the past 24 hours. That brought the total number of units in the country to 78, all in the south and east, from 65 last week, the official said.

That would work out to 55,000 to 62,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war was the typical unit strength of 700 to 800 soldiers. But at this stage it is difficult to accurately determine Russia’s combat capability.

A European official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments, said Russia also has 10,000 to 20,000 foreign fighters in the Donbas. According to the official, it is a mix of mercenaries from Russia’s private Wagner Group and Russian proxy fighters from Syria and Libya.

While Ukraine portrayed Monday’s attacks as the start of the long-feared offensive in the east, some observers noted that an escalation had been underway there for some time and questioned whether this was really the start of a new offensive.

The US official said the offensive in the Donbas has begun to a limited extent, mainly in an area southwest of the city of Donetsk and south of Izyum.

Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who now works at strategic consulting firm Sibylline, said Ukraine’s comments could be partly an attempt to convince allies to send more weapons.

“What they’re trying to do by positioning this, I think, is … to focus the mind and effort of the people by saying, ‘Look, the conflict started in the Donbas,'” Crump said. “That puts some pressure on NATO and EU suppliers to say, ‘Guys, we’re starting to fight now. We need this now.’”

President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new weapons package in the coming days that will include additional artillery and ammunition, according to a US official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Canada and the Netherlands also planned to send more heavy weapons, their prime ministers said.

Associated Press journalists in Kharkiv said a Russian attack on a residential area of ​​the city killed at least four people and injured three.

An explosion also shook Kramatorsk, killing at least one person and injuring three, according to AP journalists on the scene.

In the southern city of Bashtanka, an unknown number of people were injured when Russian troops shelled the hospital and destroyed the reception and dialysis unit, regional council chief Hanna Zamazeeva said on Facebook.

Eyewitness accounts and reports from officials have given a broad picture of the magnitude of the Russian advance. But independent coverage in the parts of the Donbas controlled by Russian troops and separatists is severely limited, making it difficult to know what is happening on the ground in many places.

Military experts said the Russians’ aim is to encircle Ukrainian forces from the north, south and east.

Key to the campaign is the capture of Mariupol, which would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which was taken from Ukraine in 2014. It would also free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.

Several thousand Ukrainian troops remained entrenched, according to the Russians’ estimate, in the sprawling Mariupol Steelworks, believed to be the last major resistance zone in the city.

Russia issued a new ultimatum on Wednesday to Ukrainian defenders to surrender after a previous ultimatum was ignored. The Russian Defense Ministry said those who surrender may continue to live and receive medical treatment. There was no immediate response from Ukrainian troops, but they have repeatedly vowed not to give up.

The deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which was among the remaining troops in Mariupol, said the Russian army dropped heavy bombs on the steel plant and hit a “makeshift” hospital.

Serhiy Taruta, the former governor of the Donetsk region and a resident of Mariupol, also reported the bombing of the hospital, where he said 300 people, including wounded troops and civilians with children, were being received.

The reports could not be independently confirmed.

Zelenskyy said the Kremlin has not responded to a proposal to exchange Viktor Medvedchuk, the imprisoned leader of a pro-Russian party, for the Mariupol defenders.

Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkov; Yesica Fisch in Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP contributors around the world.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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