Ukraine says Russia preparing to launch new eastern assault

Ukraine defence ministry warns of attacks in Luhansk, as US says Russia is shifting focus to Ukraine’s south and east.

Russia is preparing to launch a fresh assault in eastern Ukraine in a bid to take over the city of Kharkiv and encircle the country’s fortified eastern front line, Ukraine’s defence ministry has said, as a US official warned that Russia was redoubling its offensive in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk on Monday said Russia was paving the way for an assault on the regional capital of Severodonetsk via attacks on the towns of Rubizhne and Popasna in the region of Luhansk.

Motuzyanyk said the Russians were also massing forces to capture the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has been encircled by Russian forces for more than four weeks.

Severodonetsk and Mariupol lie at the northernmost and southernmost ends of Ukraine’s “line of contact” – the ceasefire line that its forces have held against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region since 2015.

In a briefing, Motuzyanyk also said that Russian troops were leaving Belarus for Russia, and Moscow was readying fuel and ammunition stockpiles in areas bordering east Ukraine. He said Russia was preparing medical facilities for a potential influx of casualties among its troops.

US says Russia redoubling its offensive

The warnings were echoed later on Monday by United States national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who said Russia was shifting its focus in its war in Ukraine to the country’s east and south.

He warned that Russia was redoubling its offensive, after pulling many troops from around the capital of Kyiv, to the east and south of Ukraine.

“Russia is repositioning its forces to concentrate its offensive operations in eastern and parts of southern Ukraine,” Sullivan told reporters.

“Russia has tried to subjugate the whole of Ukraine and it has failed. Now it will attempt to bring parts of the country under its rule.”

Sullivan said the US expects Russia to continue to launch air and missile strikes against Kyiv and the western city of Lviv to cause terror and economic damage across the rest of the country.

A senior Pentagon official said Moscow had removed about two-thirds of its troops from around Kyiv, most of whom were sent back to Belarus with plans to redeploy elsewhere in Ukraine, the AFP news agency reported.

‘Don’t hesitate’

In anticipation of a potential attack on the Luhansk region, local governor Sergiy Gaiday urged citizens to evacuate.

“We see that equipment is coming from different directions,” he said on Telegram. “They are bringing manpower, they are bringing fuel,” Gaiday added, in a video statement.

At least 1,000 people had been evacuated on Monday, Gaiday said, as he implored residents to leave the region as soon as possible.

“Please don’t wait for your homes to be bombed,” he said in a separate video. “Don’t hesitate.”

ICRC team held

Separately on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that one of the teams it had dispatched to evacuate civilians from Mariupol was being held by police in Russian-controlled territory.

For more than a month, Russian forces have laid siege to Mariupol, leaving citizens to fend for themselves under dire humanitarian conditions denounced by the international community.

Previous attempts to evacuate residents have collapsed, though some managed to escape the city, which was home to more than 400,000 people before the war.

The ICRC had been trying for days to get a team on site to provide safe passage for thousands of civilians seeking to leave.

On Monday, that team was stopped in a nearby town currently under Russian control. The team “is being held in the town of Mangush, 20km west of Mariupol,” said ICRC spokeswoman Caitlin Kelly.

“The team was stopped on Monday while carrying out humanitarian efforts to help lead a safe passage corridor for civilians.”

She added: “The ICRC has been in direct contact with our colleagues and is speaking with the parties on all sides to bring clarity to the situation and allow them to resume their humanitarian work.”

Mariupol’s mayor said on Monday that 90 percent of the area has been destroyed, and that about 130,000 people remained trapped as the city continues to be pounded by Russian bombardments.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said that Russia had not succeeded in taking full control of the port city.

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