Ukraine braces for all-out Russian assault in the east as war enters sixth week

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KYIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 14: Destruction after an apartment building hit by Russian attack in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 14, 2022. At least two civilians were killed as Russian forces targeted an apartment in the capital Kyiv, the country's State Emergency Service said on Monday. Artillery hit a nine-story apartment building in the Obolonsky district, northern Kyiv, at 05.09 a.m. local time (0309GMT), causing a fire in the building. (Photo by Alejandro Martinez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
An apartment building that was hit by a Russian attack in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Anadolu Agency / Anadolu Agency)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his nation Thursday of a buildup of Russian troops in the east and of more bloodshed to come as he and Western officials continued to cast doubt on Moscow's pronouncements of a partial military pullback around the capital.

In an overnight video address, Zelensky said there was an "accumulation" of Russian troops in the Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine claimed by pro-Russian secessionists, and cautioned his people not to read too deeply into recent peace talks.

Leaders around the world were also scrambling to address a deepening global energy crisis triggered by steep international sanctions on Russia. On Thursday, as Europe grappled with low stockpiles of fuel, President Biden announced that the United States will release a million barrels of oil a day from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve for six months in a bid to control energy prices.

As the war entered its sixth week, Zelensky dismissed Russia's claims that it was drawing down its forces in the north — where local officials near Chernihiv and the capital of Kyiv have reported days of intense shelling — as "verbal constructions."

Russian troops are not conducting a withdrawal but facing "the consequences of exile" at the hands of Ukrainian fighters, he said. "Yes, there is an ongoing negotiation process. But these are still words."

In the east, Ukrainian military leaders said they were preparing for an all-out assault by Russian forces.

"We clearly feel that the transfer of [military] technology in our direction is beginning now," Serhiy Haidai, the head of the regional military administration in Luhansk, said on Ukrainian television. "And as the equipment and personnel are being turned over, our enemies are simply firing more densely, powerfully.

"Everything is already involved here: aircraft, artillery, heavy-caliber weapons, mortars — all settlements are being shelled."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv in an overnight address. (Associated Press)

The British Ministry of Defense on Thursday predicted heavy fighting in and outside the capital, saying that "Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units."

At the same time, Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s intelligence agency, said morale was so low among Russian soldiers that they were committing self-sabotage.

"We’ve seen Russian soldiers — short of weapons and morale — refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft,” he said Thursday in a speech in Canberra, Australia.

During a news conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Kyiv was still in danger: "Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions," he said. "So we can only judge Russia on its actions, not on its words."

Still, Ukrainian forces appeared to make some progress.

Energoatom, which oversees the country's nuclear power plants, said Russian forces had withdrawn from Chernobyl, the site of the world's worst nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. A senior defense official confirmed on Thursday that Russian troops had drawn down in the area, which they had taken over in the first few days of the war.

Ukrainian media reported that Russian soldiers had been exposed to radiation while digging trenches. The International Atomic Energy Agency, however, released a statement saying it has not been able to confirm those reports.

Meanwhile, Zelensky addressed the Belgian Parliament urging its leaders to help with “weapons, sanctions, membership of the European Union.“

"We need to know that Ukraine will be in the European Union, because if we are, they will lose," Zelensky said referring to Russian forces. "But if we lose, if we lose Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, there will no longer be a strong European Union because tyranny will come and take away from you that which you have and you are proud of. This is not a threat, this is reality.”

In the battered city of Mariupol, where government officials have described scenes of desperation as residents struggle to leave for safe zones and wait hours in line for food and water, Russia and Ukraine agreed to a temporary cease-fire to evacuate civilians, both sides said Thursday.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops, which have set up checkpoints on a main artery, would allow Ukrainians to move inland to Zaporizhzhia via the Russian-controlled port city of Berdyansk. Russia said it would cooperate with the United Nations and Red Cross to allow for the evacuations.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses were ready to transport families. "We will do everything possible to ensure that buses arrive in Mariupol today and pick up people who have not yet been able to get out of the city," Vereshchuk said in a Facebook video.

It was unclear late Thursday whether the evacuation route from Mariupol, where the mayor has said the death toll tops 5,000 and satellite images show entire neighborhoods razed, had opened and, if so, for how long. Of the 430,000 people who lived there before the war, about three-quarters have already fled.

In a statement late Thursday, the Red Cross said it was "standing by" to aid in evacuations if Russia and Ukraine could "agree to the exact terms, including the route, the start time and the duration.”

Ukraine has accused Russia of routinely blocking aid routes into the city, where Russian troops are spread out, although Ukraine still controls the city center. Local officials also said this week that Russians had shelled a Red Cross building that bore a red cross against a white background on the roof.

If overtaken, Mariupol could form a key part of a strategic passage for Russia to Crimea. Russia seized the peninsula in 2014 but has no land routes connecting to it.

In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-most populous, regional Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said there was shelling overnight.

“Over the past day, Russian troops have struck 47 times with artillery, mortar, tank and strikes” around the city, Sinegubov said on the Telegram messaging app.

In Dnipropetrovsk, a region in central Ukraine, an official said missiles struck Ukrainian troops Thursday, killing two people, wounding five and wiping out a fuel depot.

Aerial view of building damaged from shelling in Mariupol
An International Committee of the Red Cross warehouse in Mariupol, Ukraine, appears to have suffered damage from shelling Monday. (Planet Labs PBC / Associated Press)

After the talks with Russians on Tuesday in Istanbul, Zelensky said he was open to negotiating the status of Crimea as part of a peace process to end Russian aggression. The president said he was also ready to talk about the Donbas, and indicated a willingness to give up Ukraine's aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Zelensky said a national vote would be required on NATO and territorial changes.

In exchange, Russia said it would "drastically" reduce its troops around Kyiv and Chernihiv, but missiles have continued to rain down. Russian state media also reported that President Vladimir Putin had ordered the draft of nearly 135,000 new conscripts.

The White House this week described Putin's drawn-out war, which has led to a historic humanitarian crisis with more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees, as a "strategic blunder." It said Putin has been "misled by the Russian military" about setbacks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov shot back Thursday, saying Washington's "complete misunderstanding" of Putin could result in "bad consequences."

"Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon have real information about what is happening in the Kremlin. They do not understand President Putin, they do not understand the decision-making mechanism and they do not understand the efforts of our work," Peskov said.

Biden, at a White House event touting his plan to reduce gas prices, elaborated on Putin being misinformed by his advisors in response to a question from a reporter.

“There's a lot of speculation, but he seems to be — I'm not saying this with a certainty — he seems to be self-isolating. And there's some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisors," Biden said. "But I don't want to put too much stock in that at this time, because we don't have that much hard evidence.”

Russian and Ukrainian representatives are set to meet again Friday via videoconference. It will be the sixth round of negotiations since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his nation also planned to host a meeting between the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Speaking to a Turkish news channel, Cavusoglu did not give a date for the meeting but said it could be within weeks.

McDonnell reported from Lviv, Kaleem from London and Lee from Los Angeles. Staff writers Noah Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.