Russia steps up assault on eastern Ukraine, Putin threatens intervening countries

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KYIV (AP) — Russia has intensified its attacks against eastern and southern Ukraine, kyiv said Thursday, with President Vladimir Putin threatening “lightning-quick” retaliation against any Western country that intervenes on Ukraine’s behalf.

More than two months after an invasion that leveled cities but failed to capture the capital kyiv, Russia has mounted a push to seize two eastern provinces in a battle the West sees as a decisive turning point in the war.

“The enemy is increasing the pace of the offensive operation. The Russian occupiers are exerting heavy fire in almost all directions,” Ukraine’s military command said of the situation on the main front in the east.

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He said Russia’s main attack was near the cities of Slobozhanske and Donets, along a strategic frontline highway linking Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, with the Russian-occupied city of Izyum. The Kharkiv regional governor said Russian forces were intensifying attacks from Izyum, but Ukrainian troops were holding their ground.

Although Russian forces were pushed out of northern Ukraine last month, they are heavily entrenched in the east and still control a swath of the south they seized in March.

Ukraine said there were loud explosions overnight in the southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russia has captured since the invasion. Russian troops used tear gas and stun grenades on Wednesday to suppress pro-Ukrainian demonstrations, and were now shelling the entire surrounding region and attacking towards Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, President Vladimir Zelenskiy’s hometown in the south, Ukraine said.

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kyiv accuses Moscow of planning a fake independence referendum in the occupied south. Russian state media on Thursday quoted an official from a self-proclaimed pro-Russian “military-civilian commission” in Kherson as saying the area would start using the Russian ruble from May 1.

Western countries have increased arms deliveries to Ukraine in recent days as fighting in the east intensifies. More than 40 countries met this week at a US air base in Germany and pledged to send heavy weapons such as artillery for what is expected to be a major battle of opposing armies along a heavily fortified front line.

Washington now says it hopes Ukrainian forces can not only repel Russia’s assault in the east, but also weaken its military so it can no longer threaten its neighbors. Russia says that amounts to NATO waging a “proxy war” against it.

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“If someone intends to intervene in the ongoing events from abroad and create strategic threats to Russia that are unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be swift,” Putin told lawmakers in St. Petersburg.

“We have all the tools for this, things that no one else can claim to have right now. And we will not boast, we will use them if necessary. And I want everyone to know it.”


British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s comments were a sign of “almost desperation, trying to amplify this with threats or indeed possible false flags or attacks.”

“Having failed in almost all of his objectives,” Putin now seeks to consolidate control of the occupied territory, Wallace said. “Just be kind of a cancerous growth within the country in Ukraine and make it very difficult for people to get them out of those fortified positions.”

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Ukrainian troops are still holed up in a giant steel mill in Mariupol, the ruined southeastern port where thousands have died during the two-month Russian siege and bombardment. Putin claimed victory in the city last week and ordered the blockade of steel mills. kyiv has called for a ceasefire to allow civilians and wounded soldiers to escape.

“As long as we are here and we maintain the defense… the city is not theirs,” Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, told Reuters in a video link from an undisclosed location below the massive factory.

“The tactic (now) is like a medieval siege. We are surrounded, they no longer launch many forces to break our defensive line. They are carrying out air strikes.”

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More than 5 million refugees have fled abroad since Russia launched its “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24. Moscow says its goal is to disarm its neighbor and defeat the nationalists there. The West calls that a false pretext for a war of aggression.

US President Joe Biden is expected to deliver remarks on Thursday in support of the Ukrainians, the White House said.

As Russia presses on with its military assault on eastern and southern Ukraine, its economic battle with the West threatens gas supplies to Europe and is hitting the Russian economy.

Moscow on Wednesday halted gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria for refusing to pay for supplies in rubles, its first major retaliatory strike against sanctions. The president of the European Commission described the measure as “blackmail”.

“The sooner everyone in Europe recognizes that they cannot depend on Russia for trade, the sooner it will be possible to ensure stability in European markets,” Zelenskiy said in a late-night speech.

(Additional Reporting by Reuters Journalists, Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan)



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