by Adam Schreck and Kara Anna
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s military dug in while Russia fired more firepower on Sunday and tapped a decorated general to take centralized control of the war ahead of a potentially decisive showdown in eastern Ukraine, something that Could start within days.
Experts said the next phase of the fight could begin with a full-scale offensive. The outcome could set the course of the conflict, which has flattened cities, killed countless thousands and left Moscow economically and politically isolated.
Questions remain about Russia’s ability to weaken and demoralize forces after their advance on the capital, Kyiv, was repelled by determined Ukrainian defenders. Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that the Russian military was trying to cover rising casualties by recalling soldiers who had retired over the past decade.
Meanwhile, a senior US official said Russia has appointed General Alexander Dvornikov, one of its most experienced military chiefs, to oversee the offensive. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to be identified.
Until now, Russia had no central combat commander on the ground.
The new battlefield leadership comes at what is expected to be a major, focused push to expand control of the Russian military to the east of the country. Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbass region since 2014 and declared some areas independent.
Dvornikov, 60, rose to prominence as the head of Russian forces deployed to Syria in 2015 to sideline President Bashar Assad’s regime amid the country’s devastating civil war. US officials say he has a record of brutality against civilians in Syria and other war theaters.
Russian officials generally do not confirm such appointments and have said nothing about a new role for Dvornikov, who received the Hero of Russia Medal, one of the country’s highest awards, from President Vladimir Putin in 2016.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan downplayed the importance of the appointment while speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“What we learned in the first several weeks of this war is that Ukraine will never be subject to Russia,” Sullivan said. “It doesn’t matter which general President Putin tries to appoint.”
Western military analysts say Russia’s attack was focused on a sickle-shaped arc in eastern Ukraine from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city in the north to Kherson in the south.
Collapsed efforts may have reduced the Russian problem, earlier in the war, to widely spreading its offensive over a much larger geographical area.
“Just looking at it on a map, you can see that they’re going to be able to bring a lot of power in a much more focused fashion,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday.
Recently released Maxar Technologies satellite imagery showed an 8-mile (13-kilometer) convoy of military vehicles headed south through Ukraine to the Donbass, recalling images of a convoy that was trying to take over by Russia. Been on the roads to Kyiv for weeks before committing. capital.
The Ukrainian military command said on Sunday, Russian forces opened fire on government-controlled Kharkiv and sent reinforcements to Izium in the southeast to break through Ukraine’s defences. The Russians also continued their siege of Mariupol, a major southern port that has been under attack and besieged for about a month and a half.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said Russia’s military used air-launched missiles to hit Ukraine’s S-300 air-defense missile systems in the southern Mykolaiv region and at an air base in Chuhuyev. Kharkiv.
Konashenkov said Russian cruise missiles fired from the sea destroyed the headquarters of a Ukrainian military unit located to the west in the Dnipro region. Neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian military claims could be independently verified.
According to the regional governor, the airport of Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, was also hit twice on Sunday by missiles.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for stronger military and political support from the West, including NATO members who have given Ukraine weapons and military equipment, but declined some requests for fear of engaging in war.
In a late-night video message, Zelensky argued that Russia’s aggression was “not intended to be limited to Ukraine alone.” “The whole European project is one goal,” he said.
“That is why it is not the moral duty of all democracies, all powers of Europe, to support Ukraine’s desire for peace,” Zelensky said. “Indeed, this is the strategy of defense for every civilized state.”
Ukrainian authorities have accused the Russian military of committing war crimes against civilians, including airstrikes on hospitals, a missile strike at a train station that killed 52 people and other violence that followed the withdrawal of Russian troops from the outskirts of Kyiv. appeared later.
Zelensky said that when he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke by phone on Sunday, “we emphasized that all perpetrators of war crimes should be identified and punished.”
A day after meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehmer announced he would meet with Putin in Moscow on Monday. Austria, a member of the European Union, is militarily neutral and is not a member of NATO.
Ukraine has blamed Russia for killing civilians in Buka and other cities outside the capital, where hundreds of bodies, many with their hands tied and signs of torture, were found after Russian troops retreated. Russia has denied the allegations and falsely claimed that the scenes were staged in Buka.
Maria Vaselenko, 77, from Borodyanka, said her daughter and son-in-law had died, leaving her grandchildren orphaned.
“The Russians were shooting. And some people wanted to come and help, but they were shooting them. They were putting explosives under the dead people,” said Vaselenko. “That’s why my children were buried under the rubble for 36 days. It was not allowed” to remove the dead bodies.
In Mariupol, Russia was deploying Chechen fighters, who were considered particularly fierce. Capturing the city on the Azov Sea would give Russia a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.
Residents are short of food, water and electricity as Russian forces have besieged the city and thwarted evacuation missions. Ukrainian officials believe an airstrike on a theater being used as a bomb shelter killed hundreds of civilians, and Zelensky has said he expects an air strike when Mariupol is now closed. If not done, then there will be more evidence of atrocities.
The Institute for the Study of War, an American think tank, predicted that Russian forces would “renew offensive operations in the coming days” from the southeastern city of Izium in Kharkiv in a campaign to conquer the Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial stronghold. is included.
But in the opinion of the think tank analysts, “the outcome of the upcoming Russian operations in eastern Ukraine is very much questionable.”
Elsewhere, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Ukraine was only able to rotate employees at the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant for the second time since Russian forces seized the facility at the start of the war.
The nuclear agency said the situation around Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, was “far from normal” after the Russians left in late March. Ukrainian officials told the agency on Sunday that laboratories for on-site radiation monitoring were destroyed and equipment was damaged or stolen.
Anna reported from Buka, Ukraine. Yesika Fisch in Borodianko, Robert Burns and Calvin Woodward in Washington, and Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.
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