‘The battle for Donbas has begun’: Russia launches offensive in eastern Ukraine | Ukraine

Russia has launched its long-anticipated offensive in Ukraine’s east, with Moscow announcing that its forces had carried out one of the largest barrages of strikes since the beginning of the invasion.

A total of 1,260 military targets were hit by rockets and artillery overnight along the 300-mile frontline in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions, according to Russian officials, including the strategically important town of Slovyansk and other cities close to the eastern frontline.

The attack was anticipated with a video address late on Monday night released by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“The battle for the Donbas, for which they have been preparing for a long time, has begun” he said, adding that “a significant part of the entire Russian army is now concentrated on this offensive”.

“No matter how many soldiers are driven there, we will defend ourselves. We will fight. We will not give up anything Ukrainian. ”

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A Zelenskiy aide said on Tuesday that the offensive was going “very cautiously” and would fail because Moscow’s forces lacked the strength to break through Ukrainian defenses. “Their offensive will fail – I give you a 99% guarantee – they simply do not have enough strength,” said the presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych.

So far, according to Ukrainian officials, the frontline in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas is still holding, apart from in the town of Kreminna in the northern Luhansk region, which Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov described as a “weak spot”.

Russian forces broke through Ukrainian lines into Kreminna on Monday and there were reports of street fighting.

Moscow’s troops frequently attack Ukrainian positions from all sides, said Zhdanov, and were occupying positions on three sides of the Donbas region: north, east and south.

A destroyed house in the village of Yatskivka, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

Ukrainian positions along the 2014-22 eastern frontline are the longest established and therefore reportedly some of the strongest.

In the northern Kharkiv region, Ukrainian forces have recaptured the villages of Bairak and Bobrivka north-east of Kharkiv city, and Hurisivka, another village between Kharkiv city and Izyum, but no other gains have been reported by the Ukrainian army.

On Monday, Oleksandr Motuzianyk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s ministry of defense, said Izyum was the area with highest concentration of Russian troops.

Izyum, regarded for centuries as the gateway to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and, from there, to the Black Sea, fell fully to Russian forces on April 1, trapping thousands of civilians in a city where as many as 80% of its residential buildings have been destroyed.

Moscow is using the city as a launching point for its assault against Ukrainian forces in Donbas, the industrial heartland in the east of the country already partly controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

In the south, the mayor of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol alleged that about 40,000 civilians had been forcibly moved to Russia or Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine.

“Unfortunately I have to declare that as of today they are forcibly deporting” residents, Vadym Boichenko told Ukrainian television. “We have verified through the municipal register that they have already deported over 40,000 people.”

Russian military vehicles on a highway near Mariupol
Russian military vehicles on a highway near Mariupol on Monday. Photograph: Alexei Alexandrov / AP

Moscow is edging closer to full control of the city in what would be its biggest prize since it invaded Ukraine in February. Relentless bombardment and street fighting have left much of the city pulverized, killing at least 21,000 people by Ukrainian estimates.

Russia on Tuesday called on Ukrainian forces to “immediately lay down arms” and issued a new ultimatum for the defenders to end their resistance, after Ukrainian forces ignored a previous such ultimatum on Sunday.

The fall of Mariupol, the largest trading port in the Azov Sea from which Ukraine exports grain, iron and steel, and heavy machinery, would be an economic blow to Ukraine and a symbolic victory for Russia. The town is a large port city and a base for Ukrainian armed forces, and serves as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea.

If Moscow were to capture Mariupol, it would be the first big city to fall and mark perhaps Russia’s biggest gain of the nearly two-month war.

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