KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia ratcheted up its battle for control of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland on Tuesday, intensifying assaults on cities and towns along a front hundreds of miles long in what officials on both sides described as a new phase of the war.
After a Russian push to overrun the capital failed, the Kremlin declared that its main goal was the capture of the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
If successful, that offensive would give President Vladimir Putin a vital piece of Ukraine and a badly needed victory in the now 7-week-old war that he could present to the Russian people amid mounting casualties and economic hardship caused by the West’s sanctions.
It would also effectively slice Ukraine in two and deprive it of the main industrial assets concentrated in the east, including coal mines, metals plants and machine-building factories.
Ukraine’s military said early Tuesday that a “new phase of war” began a day earlier when “the occupiers made an attempt to break through our defenses along nearly the entire frontline.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that “another phase of this operation is starting now.”
Ukraine’s president said that massive numbers of Russian troops were committed to the offensive, though some observers noted that an escalation has been underway there for some time.
Justin Crump, a former British tank commander, said the Ukrainian comments could, in part, be an attempt to persuade allies to send more weapons.
“What they’re trying to do by positioning this, I think, is … focus people’s minds and effort by saying, ‘Look, the conflict has begun in the Donbas,’” said Crump, of strategic advisory company Sibylline. “That partly puts pressure on NATO and EU suppliers to say, ‘Guys, we’re starting to fight now. We need this now.’”
European and American arms have been key to bolstering Ukraine’s defense, helping the under-gunned country to hold off the Russian force. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday by phone that the Netherlands would send “heavier material” to Ukraine, including armored vehicles.
In what appeared to be an intensification of attacks, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that air-launched missiles destroyed 13 Ukrainian troop and weapons locations while the air force struck 60 other Ukrainian military facilities, including missile warhead storage depots. Russian artillery hit 1,260 Ukrainian military facilities and 1,214 troops concentrations over the last 24 hours. The claims could not be independently verified.
On Monday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby cast the stepped-up campaign as “shaping operations” setting the stage for a broader offensive in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region.
The assaults began that day along a boomerang-shaped front that stretches more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) from northeastern Ukraine to the country’s southeast.
Russia said it struck several areas with missiles, including the northeastern city of Kharkiv as well as as areas around Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro west of the Donbas. Five civilians were killed in a barrage on Kharkiv, Gov. Oleh Synyehubov said Tuesday.
Moscow’s troops seized control of one town in the Donbas on Monday, according to Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said that the defensive line had held elsewhere.
The breakthrough in Kreminna takes the Russians one small step closer to their apparent goal of encircling Ukrainian troops in the region.
Retired British Gen. Richard Barrons told the BBC that “in this particular battle the Russians will be approaching the Ukrainians from the east, but also from the north and the south to try and get behind them, and so this is a more complex military problem for the Ukrainians.”
The capture of Kreminna also takes the Russians closer to the city of Slovyansk, whose loss by the Russia-backed separatists represented a humiliating setback for Moscow in the early stages of the separatist conflict in 2014.
Key to the campaign to take the east is the capture of Mariupol, a port city in the region that the Russians have besieged since the early days of the war.
Shelling continued there and Russia issued a fresh ultimatum Tuesday to the Ukrainian troops holed up there to surrender, saying those who come out will “keep their lives.” The Ukrainians have ignored previous such offers.
The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose forces have taken part in the fighting in Mariupol, said on a messaging app that Russian forces would root out the Ukrainian resistance within hours and take full control of the steel mill on Tuesday.
Kadyrov, who is known for his bluster, has repeatedly predicted the city’s fall in the past.
Securing Mariupol would free Russian troops up to move elsewhere in the Donbas, deprive Ukraine of a vital port, and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, seized from Ukraine from 2014.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard that is guarding the last known Ukrainian pocket of resistance in Mariupol, said in a video message that Russia had begun dropping bunker-buster bombs on the Azovstal steel plant where the regiment was holding out.
Civilians are also believed to be sheltering at the plant, which covers the territory of about 11 square kilometers (over 4 square miles).
On Monday, Zelenskyy said in a video address that a “significant part of the entire Russian army” is now concentrated on the battle for the Donbas.
“No matter how many Russian troops are driven there, we will fight,” Zelenskyy vowed. “We will defend ourselves.”
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff members around the world.