Emboldened by advanced weaponry and long-range artillery provided by the West, Ukrainian forces launched an offensive on Friday against Russian forces in the northeast, trying to dislodge them from two major cities as the war plunged deeper into a grueling town-battle.
After weeks of fierce fighting along a 300-mile front, neither side was able to achieve a major breakthrough, with one army capturing a few villages one day, only to lose a similar number in the following days. In its latest effort to reclaim territory, the Ukrainian military said “fierce battles” were being waged to retake Russian-held areas around Kharkiv in the northeast and Izyum in the east.
The escalation of fighting came at a time when the White House announced on Friday that President Biden will meet practically on Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and leaders of the Group of Seven, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. States.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that the leaders will gather as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to celebrate the annual Victory Day celebration on Monday with military parades and speeches commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
The holiday intensified fears in Ukraine and some Western capitals that Mr. Putin might use the occasion to expand his invasion on February 24, after his initial leadership failed to defeat the Ukrainian army and overthrow the government.
“While he was expected to walk the streets of Kyiv, this is actually not what will happen,” said Ms. Psaki. She described the G7 meeting as “an opportunity not only to show how united the West is in the face of aggression and invasion by President Putin, but also to show that unity requires action.”
Ukraine on Friday urged civilians to prepare for more severe attacks ahead of Russia’s D-Day, warning them to avoid large gatherings and imposing a new curfew from Ivano-Frankivsk in the west to Zaporizhia in the southeast.
Ukrainian police forces have also been put on high alert ahead of the holiday, which will be celebrated in Russia with military parades in Moscow and hundreds of other cities.
Vadim Denisenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, warned civilians that they could risk their lives by gathering in crowded places.
“We all remember what happened at the train station in Kramatorsk,” Mr. Denisenko said via Telegram, referring to the A devastating missile strike in that eastern city last monthDozens of people were killed as they crowded the railway platforms, trying to escape the invasion.
“Be vigilant,” said Mr. Denisenko. “This is the most important thing.”
Luhansk regional governor in eastern Ukraine, Sergei Haiday, has warned that Russian forces are preparing for a “major offensive” in the next few days against two eastern cities, Severodonetsk and Bobsana. He attacked what he called “continuous terror” in the area, saying that the recent Russian bombing had killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes.
Russian missile strikes across Ukraine have intensified in recent days as Moscow tries to slow the flow of Western weapons through the country. But as with many aspects of the war, the uncertainty about Mr. Putin’s intentions runs deep.
There is widespread speculation that he may use the upcoming holiday to turn what he calls a “special military operation” into an all-out war, which would create a justification for a mass mobilization of Russian forces and pave the way for a greater scope of the conflict. Kremlin officials have denied any such plans. But they also denied there were plans to invade Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have said that Russia’s military conscription could provoke a backlash among its citizens, many of whom, polls show, still view the war as a largely remote conflict filtered through Complex and sometimes conflicting stories provided by state-controlled media.
“General mobilization in Russia is beneficial to us,” Oleksiy Aristovich, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, said during an interview with Ukrainian television this week. “It could lead to a revolution.”
Some Western analysts speculate that Mr. Putin may instead refer to the territories Moscow has already captured in eastern Ukraine to bolster his false claims that Russia is liberating the region from the Nazis.
For its part, the Pentagon has avoided raising speculation about Putin’s D-Day plans.
“What they plan to do or say on D-Day, that’s really up to them,” John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said. He said on Thursday. “I don’t think we have a perfect feel.”
Fears that Russia could intensify its offensive came as the United Nations Security Council adopted a statement on Friday supporting efforts by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to broker a diplomatic solution to the war.
The statement, initiated by Mexico and Norway, was the first action on Ukraine to be approved unanimously by the council since the invasion began. Russia backed the statement, which did not call the conflict “war,” a term prohibited by the Kremlin.
Mr. Zelensky insisted on Friday that peace talks could not resume until Russian forces had withdrawn to where they were before the invasion. However, it did not preclude the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
“Not all bridges have been destroyed,” he said, speaking remotely at a virtual event set up by British research organization Chatham House.
Alexei Zaitsev, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said on Friday that talks between Russia and Ukraine are “in a state of stagnation,” Russian state media reported.
Mr. Zaitsev blamed NATO countries for prolonging the war by shipping billions of dollars in weapons to Ukraine, even as those countries urged Mr. Putin to withdraw his forces.
“This leads to an extension of hostilities, further destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky said Russian promoters had spent years fueling the “hate” that drove Russian soldiers to “chase” civilians, destroy cities and commit the atrocities seen in the besieged southern port of Mariupol. Much of the city, which was home to more than 400,000 people, was settled and became a powerful symbol of the devastation that Russia wrought in Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky said Russia’s determination to destroy the last Ukrainian fighters holed up with desperate civilians in bunkers under the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol only underscores the “brutality” that defined the invasion.
He said, “This is terrorism and hate.”
On Friday, about 50 women, children and adults who were trapped under the Azovstal plant in Mariupol were evacuated in a humanitarian convoy, according to a high-ranking Ukrainian official and Russian state media. Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshuk said the evacuation was “too slow” because Russian forces had violated the ceasefire.
Nearly 500 people have been able to leave the Azovstal plant, Mariupol and its surrounding areas in recent days with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross, according to Mr. Guterres.
As the fighting continues, fears are growing that the war may exacerbate the global hunger crisis.
The United Nations said Friday that there is mounting evidence that Russian forces have looted tons of Ukrainian grain and destroyed grain storage facilities, adding to export disruptions that have already sent global prices soaring, with dire consequences for poor countries.
At the same time, the organization’s anti-hunger agency, the World Food Program, has called for the ports to be reopened in the Odessa region of southern Ukraine so that food produced in the war-torn country can flow freely to the rest of the world. Ukraine, one of the largest grain growers, has nearly 14 million tons of stockpiles available for export, but the Russian blockade of the country’s ports on the Black Sea has prevented distribution.
“Right now, granaries in Ukraine are full,” said David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, while “44 million people around the world are walking toward starvation.”
Reporting was contributed by Dan Belewski, Nick Cumming Bruce, Rick Gladstone, Zolan Kanu Youngs and Farnaz Fassihi.
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