RIGA, Latvia — Russia declared the start of an intensified campaign for eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, focusing heavy firepower on areas key to cementing control of the country’s industrial heartland.
“The next phase of this special operation begins now,” Lavrov said in an interview with India Today television. “This will be an important moment during this special operation.”
Civilians remained trapped by the fighting in areas across Ukraine, as local officials urged residents to evacuate areas expected to come under intensified assault but also acknowledged that their attempts to negotiate safe passage had failed in recent days.
President Biden hosted a video call Tuesday with key partners in the effort to isolate Russia’s leadership and economy, including France, Japan, Germany, NATO and the European Union, discussing the supply of additional ammunition and other military aid to Ukraine, U.S. officials said.
The leaders agreed on the need to intensify sanctions on Russia and seek a “long-term security solution so that Ukraine could never be attacked in this way again,” a spokesperson for the British government said.
But there are few signs that the conflict, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives, will soon reach a peaceful resolution, as Western officials warned that President Vladimir Putin probably will intensify his effort in hopes of securing something he can claim as a win in time for Russia’s May 9 Victory Day. Unable to achieve its initial goals, including the capture of Kyiv, Russia has appeared to draw forces back from areas around the Ukrainian capital and concentrate on areas in the south and east.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in remarks posted Tuesday, said Russian forces were intensifying their attacks in Donbas and other areas, accusing them of deliberately targeting residential sites. “In this war, the Russian army will forever inscribe itself in world history as perhaps the most barbaric and inhuman army in the world,” he said.
The U.S. military said Russian forces were still sending logistics and support units into Donbas in preparation for a full-fledged assault. A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said “limited offensive operations” were taking place near the city of Donetsk and near Izyum, a city in the Kharkiv region.
“I think you’re going to continue to see a more blended approach here,” he added.
Ukrainian and Western officials said Russian forces continued pounding Donbas with artillery and airstrikes. The situation remained particularly dire in Mariupol, a key port city that appears to be on the verge of being taken over completely by Russia. Capturing Mariupol would help link Russian territory to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a major industrial facility in Mariupol, has emerged as a major focus for Russia and its local allies, as Ukrainian officials report Russian shelling on the plant and surrounding residential areas. Hundreds of civilians are reported to be hiding underground beneath the vast manufacturing complex.
Russia’s Defense Ministry gave Ukrainian forces positioned at the facility a deadline Tuesday to lay down their arms and evacuate the area, but local troops did not appear to comply. The commander of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol told The Washington Post that his forces could continue to “conduct combat operations and to complete our military tasks as long as we receive them” and that “we will not lay down our weapons.” He said Ukrainians were skeptical of Russian promises for safe passage.
A European official said Mariupol remained a chief objective for Moscow and said the city could fall completely in the coming days. “We do expect complete destruction of the city and many civilian casualties in Mariupol,” the official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss battlefield assessments.
“My fear is that it’s going to be worse than Bucha,” he said, referencing the city outside the capital where Russian soldiers are accused of executing and torturing civilians. Kremlin officials have characterized the wave of violence in Bucha, which generated global outrage, as falsified, and Putin this week honored the unit believed to be behind the abuses.
To the north, Russian forces have taken control of Luhansk’s city of Kreminna, forcing local troops to pull back, the region’s governor said Tuesday. Control of Kreminna puts Russia closer to Kramatorsk, the capital of neighboring Donetsk.
“Kreminna today unfortunately is already under the control of the orcs,” Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai told reporters, using a pejorative term for Russian forces. “It was necessary for our defenders to leave, because they held the defense for almost two months, and there the enemy shelled every meter of our line of defense.”
Russia’s expected push could have immediate effects for Ukrainian soldiers dug in along the front lines of what had been a seven-year war in Ukraine’s east. Now those troops, deployed along trenches and camouflaged dugouts in areas near the borders of the Luhansk-Donetsk regions, are bracing for a dramatically more powerful assault as Russia repositions troops and weaponry.
“If we lose here in the Donbas, the Russians won’t stop,” said Sergii, a 44-year-old Ukrainian soldier. “They’ll come next for the rest of Europe.”
Ukrainian troops hope to employ some of the increasing weapons supplies from NATO and other nations, now including additional air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and even tanks. U.S. and other NATO countries have stopped short, however, of bowing to Ukrainian appeals for fighter jets and the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“It is unfair that Ukraine is still forced to ask for what its partners have been storing somewhere for years,” Zelensky said Tuesday. “If they have the weapons that Ukraine needs here, needs now, if they have the ammunition that we need here and now, it is their moral duty first of all to help protect freedom. Help save the lives of thousands of Ukrainians.”
Civilians continue to struggle to reach safety across the country. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said no humanitarian corridors would be opened for the third straight day after the two countries were unable to agree on arrangements, leaving residents stranded in cities including Kherson, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
In a Telegram post, Haidai, the Luhansk governor, estimated that some 70,000 civilians remained across Luhansk and said efforts to evacuate them were continuing.
The head of the World Health Organization condemned what he said were more than 140 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine. “War will not be a solution. Once again, I call on Russia to end the war,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter.
It was not clear Tuesday whether Russian strikes a day earlier on the western city of Lviv, which has been mostly shielded from the violence, signaled a shift in Kremlin strategy. U.S. officials say that as it begins its new push, the Russian military will attempt to avoid some of the problems that plagued the earlier stages of its offensive, repositioning helicopters, heavy artillery and command elements ahead of a larger assault.
The European official said the Russian military, under a new commander for Ukraine, appeared to have moved most of its forces from Belarus and northern Ukraine toward the southwest, representing a force of about 60,000 soldiers. Those were in addition to thousands of fighters from Syria and Libya and others employed by Wagner, a shadowy Russian mercenary operation, the official said.
While the official said Luhansk is already mostly under Russian control, the more urban Donetsk would represent a greater threat.
Western officials have said that Russian morale is poor, following heavy losses in the north and the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva. The European official, however, said he expected that in four to six months Moscow will have consolidated its grasp of a new Russian-controlled “state” in Luhansk, in addition to controlling parts of Donetsk and a small slice of Zaporizhzhia, a region in the south. “So by summer 2022, Putin can declare he has protected the Russian population in occupied Donbas,” he said.
The official said Russia, if cornered, could decide to use unconventional arms, such as a chemical, biological or even nuclear device, but would do so in a “low attribution” manner, attempting to blame Ukrainian nationalists for such an act.
“Putin will be extremely unlikely to capitulate and accept a military defeat,” the official said.
Also on Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called for a four-day pause in fighting through Sunday’s Orthodox Easter holiday, celebrated by Christians in Ukraine and Russia, allowing for the departure of trapped civilians and the delivery of aid to cities, including Mariupol. He said the United Nations was prepared to send aid convoys to assist millions of people in need.
“I call on Russians and Ukrainians to silence the guns and forge a path to safety for so many at immediate risk,” he said in a statement. “Inspired by Holy Week and all that it represents, I urge all parties — and all champions of peace around the world — to join my Easter appeal. Save lives. Stop the bloodshed and destruction.”
There were no immediate responses from the Russian and Ukrainian governments. Guterres’ spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said the United Nations had been in touch with officials from both sides before launching the proposal. “Obviously, the proof … will be on the ground, but this was not an appeal that was launched out of nowhere,” he told reporters in New York.
As part of the Biden administration’s attempt to isolate Russia, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen is expected to boycott several upcoming meetings of the Group of 20 nations, which includes Russia.
An increasing number of Ukrainian migrants, meanwhile, were detained as they attempted to enter the United States, immigration data revealed. More than 5,000 were detained at air, sea and land crossings in March, up from 1,150 the previous month. Many arriving Ukrainians have been released into the United States via humanitarian parole, and the administration has announced that it will extend the eligibility of Ukrainians for “temporary protected status,” allowing them to stay for 18 months and apply for work permits, if they arrived by April 11.
Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Karen DeYoung, Maria Sacchetti, Jeff Stein and Paulina Villegas in Washington contributed to this report.