The United States accused Russia on Thursday of planning to stage bogus independence votes to justify its seizure of territory in Ukraine as Russian forces intensified their attack in the east.
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.
Although Russian troops were pushed out of northern Ukraine last month, they are heavily entrenched in the east and also holding a swath of the south that they seized in March.
The US mission to the OSCE security body said the Kremlin could attempt “fake referendums” in the southern and eastern areas it had captured since the February 24 invasion, using “a well-worn playbook.” who steals the darkest chapters of history”.
“These falsified and illegitimate referendums will undoubtedly be accompanied by a wave of abuses against those who seek to oppose or undermine Moscow’s plans,” he said. “The international community must make it clear that such a referendum will never be recognized as legitimate.”
Ukraine said there were explosions overnight in the southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russia has so far captured since the invasion. Russian troops there had used tear gas and stun grenades on Wednesday to suppress pro-Ukrainian crowds, and were now shelling the entire surrounding region and attacking towards Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine said.
Russian state media on Thursday quoted an official from a pro-Russian self-styled “military-civilian commission” in Kherson as saying the area would start using the Russian ruble from May 1.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russia was also intensifying its main military attack in the east, where Moscow now seeks to seize the two provinces partially controlled by separatists since 2014.
“The enemy is increasing the pace of the offensive operation. The Russian occupiers are applying heavy fire in almost all directions,” he said.
It identified Russia’s main attack 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.
NATO stands ready to maintain its support for Ukraine in the war against Russia for years to come, including helping kyiv transition from Soviet-era weapons to modern Western weapons and systems, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.
He spoke after the Kremlin warned that Western arms supplies to Ukraine, including heavy weapons, posed a security threat to the European continent “and caused instability.”
“We need to be prepared for the long term,” Stoltenberg told a youth summit in Brussels. “There is absolutely a possibility that this war will drag on and last for months and years.”
The NATO chief said the West will continue to exert maximum pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special military operation,” through sanctions and economic and military aid. to Kyiv.
“NATO allies are preparing to provide support over a long period of time and also help Ukraine transition from old Soviet-era equipment to more modern NATO-standard weapons and systems that will also require more training. Stoltenberg said.
Most of the heavy weapons that NATO countries have sent to Ukraine so far are Soviet-made weapons that are still in the inventories of Eastern European NATO member states, but the United States and some other allies have started supplying kyiv with Western howitzers.
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, and this week has made a series of unspecified threats of retaliation.
“If anyone 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,” President Vladimir Putin told lawmakers in the US on Wednesday. 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.”
MURAT YUKSELIR / THE BALLOON AND THE MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s comments suggesting he would escalate the conflict were a sign of “desperation”. “Having failed in almost all of his objectives,” Putin now seeks to consolidate Russia’s control over the occupied territory, acting as a “cancerous growth” inside Ukraine, Wallace said.
When Russian forces were pushed out of kyiv last month, they left destroyed suburbs strewn with the bodies of hundreds of murdered civilians in what Western countries call clear evidence of war crimes. Moscow denies targeting civilians and says, without evidence, that such signs of alleged atrocities are false.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an emotional note during a visit to the formerly Russian-occupied suburbs of Borodyanka and Bucha in kyiv.
“I imagine my family in one of those houses, now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running away in panic, part of the family finally killed,” Guterres told reporters in Borodyanka, surrounded by charred, windowless apartment blocks.
“Innocent civilians were living in these buildings, they were paying the ultimate price for a war to which they have contributed nothing.”
Guterres met Putin in Moscow on Wednesday on a failed peacekeeping mission. Russia has rejected the UN chief’s offer to help evacuate Mariupol, the besieged port that has been the scene of the bloodiest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe of the war.
Ukrainian troops are still holed up in a huge steel mill in Mariupol. Putin claimed victory in the city last week and ordered the blockade of steel mills. kyiv says 100,000 civilians are still trapped in the city’s ruins.
“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.”
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, which the West calls 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.
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