Russia escalates its attack on eastern Ukraine, and Putin threatens countries that interfere

  • “Our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast,” says Putin.
  • Russia attacks the east
  • Demonstrations against the Russian occupation in the south
  • UK says Putin wants occupation as a ‘cancerous growth’ in Ukraine

Kyiv (Reuters) – Kyiv said on Thursday that Russia had intensified its attacks on eastern and southern Ukraine and that President Vladimir Putin had threatened to retaliate “with lightning speed” against any Western countries intervening on Ukraine’s behalf.

More than two months after an invasion that flattened cities but failed to capture the capital, Kyiv, Russia launched a campaign to seize two eastern provinces in a battle seen by the West as a decisive turning point in the war.

“The enemy is increasing the pace of the offensive operation. The Russian occupiers are firing intense fire in almost all directions,” the Ukrainian military command said about the situation on the main front in the east.

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She said the main Russian offensive was near the towns of Slobozansky and Donets, along a strategic highway linking Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, to the Russian-occupied city of Izyum. The governor of the Kharkiv region said that Russian forces are intensifying their attacks from Izyum, but that Ukrainian forces are holding out.

Although Russian forces were expelled from northern Ukraine last month, they are deeply entrenched in the east and also still control swathes of the south they captured in March.

Ukraine said powerful explosions occurred overnight in the southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russia has captured since the invasion. Ukraine said that Russian forces used tear gas and stun grenades on Wednesday to quell pro-Ukrainian demonstrations, and are now shelling the entire surrounding area and attacking Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih.

Kyiv accuses Moscow of planning to hold a fake referendum on independence in the occupied south. Russian state media quoted an official from a pro-Russian “civilian military committee” in Kherson on Thursday as saying that the region would start using the Russian ruble currency from May 1.

Western countries have stepped up arms shipments to Ukraine in recent days as fighting in the east intensifies. More than 40 nations gathered 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 massive battle between rival armies along the heavily fortified front line.

Washington now says it hopes Ukrainian forces will not only be able to repel Russia’s attack on the east, but also weaken its army so that it cannot threaten its neighbors. Russia says that amounts to a “proxy war” against it by NATO.

“If someone intends to interfere in current events from abroad, creating unacceptable strategic threats to Russia, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast,” Putin told lawmakers in St. Petersburg.

“We have all the tools for that, things no one else can boast of owning now. And we won’t be proud, we’ll use them if necessary. And I want everyone to know that.”

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

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

Ukrainian forces are still hiding in a giant steel factory in Mariupol, the devastated southeastern port where thousands of people died during two months of Russian siege and bombardment. Putin declared his victory in the city last week, ordering the closure of the steelworks. Kyiv has demanded a cease-fire to allow civilians and wounded soldiers to escape.

“As long as we are here and hold the defense … the city is not theirs,” Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, told Reuters in a video link from an undisclosed location below the huge plant.

“The tactic (now) is like a medieval siege. We are surrounded, they no longer throw so many troops to break our line of defense. They launch 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 there. The West calls this a false pretext to launch a war of aggression.

The White House said US President Joe Biden is expected to make statements Thursday in support of Ukrainians.

As Russia presses its military offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine, its economic battle with the West threatens gas supplies to Europe and hurts the Russian economy.

Moscow on Wednesday halted gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria for refusing to pay for supplies in rubles, in its first major retaliatory blow against sanctions. The President of the European Commission described this step as “blackmail”.

“The sooner everyone in Europe realizes that he cannot count on Russia for trade, the sooner it will be possible to ensure stability in European markets,” Zelensky said in an overnight speech.

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Reporting by Reuters journalists; Writing by Peter Graf; Editing by Angus McSwan.

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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