Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had begun a long-awaited major new offensive in the country’s eastern Donbas border region after its forces intensified attacks along the frontline.
Zelensky said in a late-night TV address on Monday that Russia had concentrated a “significant part” of its forces in the region and vowed that Ukraine would defend itself “however many troops they send there”. “We will fight. We won’t give up anything Ukrainian,” he added.
Russia withdrew from several regions in central Ukraine in late March after failing to take Kyiv and said it would refocus its efforts on the Donbas, where it claims it is protecting Russian speakers in an eight-year separatist conflict.
Ukraine’s armed forces said on Tuesday morning that Moscow was continuing offensive operations in the east in order to establish full control over the territory of the Donbas’s two administrative regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia partially occupied in 2014, and to build a land corridor with Crimea.
“The main efforts of the enemy are focused on breaking through the defence of Ukrainian troops in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, as well as establishing full control over the city of Mariupol,” the military’s general staff said in a regular morning update on the war.
It said that Russia was continuing to transfer troops, support units, weapons and military equipment into Ukraine from its central and eastern regions.
Ukrainian and foreign defence analysts say that Russia is refocusing its campaign on the east, attacking Kharkiv and other cities in the north, while in the south trying to seize the port of Mariupol, which is now almost entirely under the control of Russian and separatist troops.
The besieged city’s local government said on Monday evening that Russian forces were attacking the Azov steelworks, where the last Ukrainian troops were holding out in underground passageways, with heavy bombs.
In a post on its Telegram channel, the city said that there were also at least 1,000 civilians, mostly women, children and elderly people, in the plant’s shelters.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has said “liberating” the Donbas is Moscow’s main goal but Ukrainian officials worry that the new offensive could precede more attacks to capture territory in the rest of the country.
“Putin hasn’t removed the goal to destroy us as a state and our political leadership,” Oleksiy Danilov, chair of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Ukrainian television.
He claimed that Russian troops were trying to capture the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk regions before Orthodox Easter Sunday on April 24 as a “present” to Putin.
Much of the region is already controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Earlier on Monday, a US defence official said Russia had added thousands of troops to southern and eastern Ukraine over the past several days in preparation for the Donbas offensive.
Ahead of Zelensky’s announcement, John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said Russian forces “are shaping and setting the conditions for future offensive operations”.
Russia now has about 76 battalion tactical groups inside Ukraine, concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the country, representing an increase of about 11 battalion tactical groups, the official said.
Officials have previously said a Russian battalion tactical group averages about 800 to 1,000 troops, though the estimate is fluid because the US is not sure how the units have been reconstituted as the fighting has gone on, the senior official said.
Moscow has been conducting what the Pentagon described as “shaping operations” aimed at preparing the ground for the offensive. Russia has been moving heavy artillery, command and control enablers and aviation support into the Donbas, the official said.
“It appears as if they are trying to learn from the failed lessons of the north where they didn’t have proper sustainment capabilities,” the official said.
With Moscow’s brutal siege of Mariupol appearing to be in its final stages, the US assessed that Mariupol was “contested and isolated”, with fierce fighting continuing, the official said.
The US would also begin training some Ukrainian forces outside of the country to use howitzers, the official said. A “training the trainers” approach would be employed, allowing Ukrainian troops to return to the battlefield to teach others.
The most recent $800mn US aid package includes 18 155mm howitzers and 40,000 155mm artillery rounds, according to the Pentagon.