Russian forces have continued to move towards eastern Ukraine ahead of a planned major offensive in the Donbas region, while conditions in Mariupol remain dire, with thousands of civilians reported dead and Russian forces advancing towards the full control of the port city.
Live briefing: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
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Ukrainian commanders and Western officials say Russia has continued to move its forces from areas north of kyiv and Belarus to Kharkiv and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting has continued since 2014.
Officials expect Russia to launch a new offensive, possibly with the aim of taking the remaining territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions that are still controlled by Ukrainian government forces.
The death toll from the conflict, which erupted when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, remains unclear.
Ukrainian commanders said on April 12 that 19,500 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. The most recent official tally from the Russian Defense Ministry, at the end of March, was around 1,370.
US officials publicly say Russia lost at least 10,000 troops, and privately US and Western officials approximate the figure to the Ukrainian estimate – which would mean Russia lost more troops in Ukraine than it did. never did in the 10 years of the USSR. war in Afghanistan.
Ukraine has not released its own casualty figures, saying it is a state secret, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said publicly in mid-March that around 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed.
A US Department of Defense official said on April 11 that Russian forces were building up around the Donbas region, including near the town of Izyum, which reportedly fell to Russian troops last week.
A Russian convoy comprising command and control vehicles, as well as supporting infantry and helicopter units, was seen heading towards Izyum, the official said.
The official also said that more than 60 tactical groups of Russian battalions – each numbering between 800 and 1,000 troops – were reportedly deployed from Kherson in south-central Ukraine, northeast through Donbass, to at the Russian border.
Russia has also named a new general to take unified command of the Donbass offensive, a move Western officials say appears to be aimed at resolving the confusion and missteps that plagued Russian forces during the first phase of the war.
Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of Azov, has been under intense siege by Russian forces for weeks, and the city now looks like an apocalyptic landscape. Russian forces are fighting street by street with determined Ukrainian marines and the Azov Battalion.
On April 11, Myhaylo Podolyak, one of Zelenskiy’s top advisers, said in a Twitter post that Ukrainian forces were “encircled and pinned down” in Mariupol.
Addressing South Korea’s parliament on April 11, Zelenskiy said Russia had “completely destroyed Mariupol and reduced it to ashes”.
“Tens of thousands of Mariupol citizens must have been killed at least,” he said according to a transcript of the president’s conference.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko was quoted on April 12 as saying the latest estimate was that around 21,000 civilian residents of Mariupol have been killed since the start of the Russian invasion.
Ukrainian and Western officials also said they were investigating reports that a chemical weapon may have been used against Azov fighters and Ukrainian marines in Mariupol.
A US official speaking on condition of anonymity was quoted by Reuters on April 12 as saying that the United States had no information to confirm any movement of chemical agents by Russia into Ukraine or to proximity.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, also suffered significant damage, but remains under Ukrainian control. Oleh Synehubov, the head of the regional administration, said in a Telegram message on April 11 that eight people had been killed by shelling, but Ukrainian forces continued to defend the city.
Peace talks have all but stalled now, as Zelenskiy’s government rejects Russian ultimatums and the Kremlin turns its attention to Donbass. European diplomats have sought, unsuccessfully so far, to try to steer Russian President Vladimir Putin away from a continued assault.
Speaking April 12 during a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia, Putin called the war and its military goals “noble”, and he predicted that Russian forces would succeed.
“His goals are absolutely clear and noble,” Putin said.
Putin again claimed that Russia was forced to invade Ukraine in order to ensure Russian security. Among other arguments, the Kremlin said Ukraine’s NATO membership would pose a critical threat to Russia. For its part, NATO has said that Ukraine may join the alliance some day in the future, but not so soon.
The Russian leader also reiterated that Russian forces were helping people in Ukraine; an echo of another Kremlin argument that native Russian speakers in Ukraine were somehow at risk.
“On the one hand, we help and save people, and on the other, we simply take measures to ensure the security of Russia itself,” Putin explained. “Clearly we had no choice. It was the right decision.”
Podolyak said the peace talks were very difficult but were continuing at sub-working group level. He told Reuters that Russia was trying to pressure the talks with its public statements.