Russia captures town in eastern Ukraine in new phase of war

Western leaders pledge more arms and support in ‘Battle for the Donbas’

Thousands of Russian troops backed by artillery and rocket barrages began a long-anticipated offensive in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, prompting western countries to pledge more arms and money to the Kyiv government.

Ukrainian officials said their soldiers would withstand the assault, calling it the Battle of the Donbas. But the Russians pressed an advance across almost the entire stretch of the eastern front and, hours after its start, seized the frontline city of Kreminna.

In the ruins of Mariupol, the southeastern port that has suffered nearly eight weeks of siege, Russia gave the last Ukrainian defenders holed up in a steel works an ultimatum to surrender by noon or die. The deadline passed without word of their fate.

Kyiv’s lead negotiator said it was hard to predict when peace talks might resume because of the Mariupol siege and the new offensive.


In a swift response to the intensified assault, US president Joe Biden and other western leaders discussed increasing military, economic and humanitarian support for the Kyiv government, and ways to hold Moscow accountable, the White House said.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin intended to supply Ukraine with anti-tank and air defence weapons as well as long-range artillery weapons, and British prime minister Boris Johnson also promised more artillery weapons as the conflict moved into a new phase.

Mr Scholz said the allies agreed Russia must not win the war, and that an imposed peace as envisaged by Russian president Vladimir Putin was not acceptable.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a four-day humanitarian pause in the fighting from Thursday over the Orthodox Easter weekend to allow civilians to leave areas of conflict and humanitarian aid to be delivered.

Ukraine said the new assault had resulted in the capture of Kreminna, an administrative centre of 18,000 people in Luhansk, one of the two Donbas provinces.

Russian forces were attacking “on all sides”, authorities were trying to evacuate civilians and it was impossible to tally the civilian dead, Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Ukrainians in a video address on Monday night: “No matter how many Russian troops they send there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves.”

In Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that “another stage of this operation is beginning”.

Ukraine’s top security official, Oleksiy Danilov, said Russian forces had tried to break through Ukrainian defences “along almost the entire front line of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

Driven back by Ukrainian forces in March from an assault on Kyiv in the north, Russia has instead poured troops into the east for the Donbas offensive.

A European official told the Guardian that Moscow had deployed up to 20,000 mercenaries from Syria, Libya and elsewhere in its new offensive. The official said the estimates of mercenary involvement on the ground in eastern Ukraine range from 10,000 to 20,000 and that it was hard to break down that figure between Syrians, Libyans and other fighters recruited by the Russian mercenary company, the Wagner Group. Syrian ex-soldiers have been offered monthly salaries of between $600 and $3,000 to fight.

The coal- and steel-producing Donbas has been the focal point of Russia’s campaign to destabilise Ukraine since 2014, when the Kremlin used proxies to set up separatist “people’s republics” in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

Moscow now says its aim is to capture the full provinces on the separatists’ behalf. Ukraine has a large force defending northern parts of the Donbas and military experts say Russia aims to cut them off or surround them.

But Russia still needs to keep its troops supplied across miles of hostile territory. Ukraine has counter-attacked near Kharkiv in the rear of Russia’s advance, apparently aiming to cut off supply lines.

Mariupol has been besieged since the war’s early days. Tens of thousands of residents have been trapped with no access to food or water and bodies litter the streets. Ukraine believes more than 20,000 civilians have died there.

Capturing it would link pro-Russian separatist territory with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.

Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard that is guarding the last known Ukrainian pocket of resistance in Mariupol, said in a video message that Russia had begun dropping bunker-buster bombs on the Azovstal steel plant where the regiment was holding out.

Civilians are also believed to be sheltering at the plant, which covers about four square miles.

“Obviously, against the backdrop of the Mariupol tragedy, the negotiation process has become even more complicated,” Ukraine’s lead negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters.

Kyiv and Moscow have not held face-to-face talks since March 29th. Each side blames the other for their breakdown.

“It is difficult to say when the next face-to-face round of negotiations will be possible because the Russians are seriously betting on the so-called ‘second stage of the special operation’,” Mr Podolyak said.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia handed over 60 soldiers and 16 civilians to Ukraine in an exchange of prisoners of war on Tuesday: “This was the fifth exchange of prisoners of war. A total of 76 people,” Ms Vereshchuk said in a statement.

The swap included 10 Ukrainian officers, she said.

Shells and rockets also hit Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, local officials said, wrecking apartment blocks and other buildings. Four people were killed and 14 wounded, they said. – Reuters/AP/Guardian