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Ukraine is preparing for a new Russian offensive in the east, says Zelenskyy

Russia's invasion of Ukraine
Maria, wife of Ukrainian soldier Vasyl Vekliuk, 59, who died in shelling near Popasna in the Luhansk region amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attends his funeral in Stebnyk, Lviv region, Ukraine, May 30. March 2022 part. REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi

March 31, 2022

By Oleksandr Kozkukhar

LVIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces are preparing for fresh Russian attacks in the east of the country as Moscow builds up its troops there after suffering setbacks near the capital Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.

Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, now in its fifth week, has driven around a quarter of Ukrainians from their homes and pushed Russo-Western tensions to their worst point since the Cold War.

Stubborn resistance by Ukrainian forces has prevented Russia from capturing a major city, including Kyiv, where a Russian armed column was held off for weeks. At peace talks in Istanbul this week, Russia said it would scale back operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to build confidence.

But Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, dismissed Russia’s promises as a ploy to stem its losses and prepare for further attacks. Russia says its forces are regrouping to focus on “liberating” the breakaway eastern Donbass region.

In an early-morning video address, Zelenskyy referred to Russian troop movements away from Kyiv and Chernihiv, saying it was not a deduction but “the result of the work of our defenders.”

Zelenskyy added that Ukraine “sees the build-up of Russian forces for new attacks on Donbass and we are preparing for it”.

Moscow has maintained close ties with pro-Russian separatists who control parts of the Donbass region, which includes two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” that Russia says it is helping break away from Ukrainian control.

The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin said on Wednesday that offensive operations would be intensified.

“We are aware that the longer it takes us to liberate our territory, these settlements that are now under the control of Ukraine, the more casualties and destruction there will be,” he said.

Donetsk includes the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting and bombing of the war, trapping some 170,000 people with scant food and water.

“We cook what we find at the neighbors. A little cabbage, a little more potatoes, we found tomato paste, some beetroot,” said Viktor, a former steelworker from Mariupol. They cook with a rudimentary grill and sleep in a basement he called their “peaceful oasis.”

Russian forces have captured half of the strategic port city, an adviser to Zelenskyy said on Wednesday.

Russia says it is conducting a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor. Western countries say Moscow’s invasion was completely unprovoked.

PEACE TALKS

The fate of the south-eastern Donbass region, which Russia must cede from Ukraine to the separatists, was a topic at peace talks held at a palace in Istanbul on Tuesday. A senior Ukrainian negotiator said talks would continue online on Friday.

Ukraine has sought a ceasefire without compromising territory or sovereignty, although it has proposed adopting neutral status in exchange for security guarantees. Russia is opposed to Ukraine joining the US-led NATO military alliance and has cited its potential membership as a reason for the invasion.

Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion have largely isolated its economy from world trade, but Moscow is still Europe’s largest supplier of oil and gas.

To exert its influence, Russia demanded oil and gas payments in rubles until Friday, fueling fears of energy shortages and heightening recession risks in Europe. Germany has warned of a possible emergency if Russia cuts supplies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised a possible compromise with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, saying payments could be made in euros and transferred to Gazprombank, which would convert the money into rubles, a German government spokesman said.

“Scholz did not agree to this procedure in the conversation, but asked for written information in order to be able to better understand the procedure,” said the spokeswoman.

Gazprombank, one of the main payment channels for Russian oil and gas, is not subject to EU sanctions.

But global restrictions on exports to Russia over its invasion have shut down an automaker, halted work on tanks and cut off a Russian computer maker’s access to circuits used in communications devices, a US official said.

“Necessity brought together this unprecedented collaboration on export controls and other policies that are having a significant impact on Putin’s war,” said Thea Kendler, a US Commerce Department official.

Russia says the West has effectively declared economic war on Russia and will now turn east, away from Europe, to build a partnership with China.

The head of Britain’s spy service GCHQ said there were risks for Russia and China if they were lined up too closely.

“Russia understands that in the long term China will continue to grow militarily and economically,” Jeremy Fleming said in a speech in Canberra.

“Some of their interests conflict; Russia could be squeezed out of the equation,” Fleming said.

(Reporting by Reuters offices; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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Bobby Allyn

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