KRAMATORSK, Ukraine —
Determined to seize control of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, Russia on Tuesday intensified its assaults along a more than 300-mile-long front line in the country’s east, and again gave a fruitless surrender ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in the besieged southern port of Mariupol.
Bombardment boomed in eastern cities and towns in what Russia and Ukraine are each calling a major new phase of the ferocious, nearly 8-week-old war.
Russia’s military on Tuesday described an intensifying wave of attacks. Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that in the previous 24 hours, Russian forces had launched strikes against more than 1,200 Ukrainian military facilities and also targeted more than 1,200 troop concentrations. The claims could not be independently verified.
Although Ukraine says Russia has begun its long-expected all-out assault in the east — and Moscow’s top diplomat confirmed Tuesday the struggle has entered its next stage — some Western military officials and analysts suggest the current Russian attacks are setting the battlefield for a larger and potentially far more brutal offensive.
A U.S. military official said: “We think that these offensives are preludes to larger offensive operations.” The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. believes Russia has launched at least 1,670 missiles at Ukraine since it invaded Feb. 24.
President Biden was to confer Tuesday with key allies about the next phase of the war and how the West will respond.
Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, implored civilians to get out of the eastern battle zone by any means possible, but acknowledged that for a third straight day there had been no agreement reached with Russia to set up humanitarian corridors for those fleeing the fighting.
The latest Russian ultimatum to the Ukrainian forces in Mariupol came in a statement by the defense ministry in Moscow promising that those who lay down their arms “are guaranteed to remain alive.” But as happened over the weekend, the surrender deadline came and went without any sign of a Ukrainian pullback from a sprawling steelworks plant where an estimated several thousand fighters and hundreds of civilians are holed up in a network of tunnels.
A Ukrainian commander says Russia has been using “bunker-buster” bombs to try to dislodge the defenders.
Mariupol’s capture would likely be hailed by Russia as a pivotal triumph in a war that has yielded few of those for Moscow. It would free up more brigades for the eastern fight, as well as enable the creation of a strategically important land corridor between Russian-controlled areas and the annexed Crimean peninsula.
Moscow was initially silent on Monday night when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that the war for Ukraine’s industrial east, known as the Donbas, had begun. The area is made up of two large regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, parts of which are already controlled by Russia-backed separatists who have been battling Ukrainian forces for eight years.
“We will fight,” Zelensky vowed in a video address. “We will defend ourselves.”
Russia appeared to confirm the wider offensive’s start when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview broadcast Tuesday that “another stage of this operation is beginning.”
“I am sure this will be a very important moment of this entire special operation,” Lavrov told Indian television. Russia refers to Europe’s biggest land war since World War II as a “special military operation.”
The Pentagon on Monday cast the current Russian activity as “shaping operations” rather than a full-scale assault. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Russian forces were thought to be trying to “set the conditions for what they believe will be eventual success on the ground” in the east.
A Washington-based think tank said in its newest military push, Russia might face many of the problems that plagued its attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv — an effort Moscow broke off nearly a month ago.
The Institute for the Study of War said in its latest report that Russia “did not take the operational pause that was likely necessary to reconstitute and properly integrate damaged units” from elsewhere in Ukraine, and that Russian forces were probably still bedeviled by logistics and morale problems.
The onslaught in the east “is unlikely to be dramatically more successful than previous Russian offensives, but Russian forces may be able to wear down Ukrainian defenders or achieve limited gains,” it said.
Moscow, for its part, is leaning into the theme of mocking Ukraine as a mere tool of Western aggression against Russia. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks at a meeting with senior military officials that by rushing weapons to Ukraine, the United States and its allies were trying to spur the Kyiv government to “keep fighting until the last Ukrainian.”
Ukraine’s military said Tuesday that Russia’s apparent aim was to seize full control of the Donbas. Its general staff said in a statement that overnight and early Tuesday, “the occupiers made an attempt to break through our defenses along nearly the entire front line,” a distance of more than 300 miles.
All along the battlefront, Russian forces were probing for “sensitive spots” in Ukraine’s defense, presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych said. But speaking on national television, he predicted the offensive would fail because the Russians “simply do not have enough strength.”
Even so, civilian casualties were mounting. Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said on Ukrainian television that the town of Kreminna came under heavy artillery fire overnight, setting residential buildings ablaze.
The Ukrainians retreated in order to regroup, giving Russia control of the town, because “it simply makes no sense to stand in one place, to die” without prospects for inflicting any real harm on the invaders, he said.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, hammered by near-constant bombardment, five people had been killed by shelling in the last 24 hours, the regional governor said Tuesday.
South of there, in the contested city of Kramatorsk, a massive blast Tuesday afternoon sent people and dogs scurrying from the streets. Rescue crews said the explosion was caused by a Russian X-58 missile hitting a cement factory in the center of the city.
The missile had slammed through the factory’s roof, covering manufacturing equipment and other detritus in a fine gray dust. Beside the building were the remains of a large truck and the body of a factory worker covered by a yellow tarp, a gash on his face, a pool of blood at his side.
For many in the battle zone, there’s no clear distinction between a much-heralded new phase of fighting and what has already occurred during the nearly two months since Russia invaded its smaller neighbor.
In Avdiivka, less than two miles from the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, shelling had been a constant backdrop, with many forced to live their lives largely underground. In one school, some 200 people took shelter in the dank confines of a basement , sleeping on mattresses laid over desks. They shared one bathroom, on the ground level.
A month ago, an artillery round smashed the fourth-floor apartment of the head of Avdiivka’s utility company, who gave only his first name, Rostislav, for reasons of privacy.
His family — a wife and three children, the youngest seven months old — found safety in the Black Sea city of Odesa. But the shelling stole a home whose purchase had cost him all he had.
“I’m 37, and I have nothing,” he said.
Standing in front of the ruined apartment building, he pointed out where the shell had hit, debris now in an organized pile on the side of the street. Nearby were gouges and craters in the sidewalk where other artillery rounds had fallen.
Despite Avdiivka’s proximity to the front lines of the eight-year war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, Rostislav described a community that flourished before the Feb. 24 invasion.
“There was work, money and happiness,” he said. Now, like so many other cities across the Donbas, it was virtually a ghost town.
Asked if he planned to leave, he sighed.
“Not today,” he said.
Bulos reported from Kramatorsk, King from Berlin and Linthicum from Mexico City.