Cities in the Donbas came under Russian fire overnight, and the attacks interfered with attempts to evacuate civilians in one area, according to a regional official. The region, home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories, is bracing for what could be a decisive campaign as Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to salvage an 8-week-old war already widely seen as a blunder and a humanitarian disaster.
On Thursday, the Russian leader claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol, even though an estimated 2000 Ukrainian remain holed up at a giant steel mill in the strategic city. Putin ordered his troops not to storm the stronghold but to seal it off — in an apparent bid to free up troops for the broader campaign in the east.
Hours later, Maxar Technologies released new satellite images that it said showed more than 200 graves in a town near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians there.
Russia said again Friday that “second phase” of the war was underway — but instead of a full-out assault, scattered towns in the east have experienced the intimidating thuds of incoming shells that drive citizens out in panic.
Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 in eastern Ukraine, came under fire during the night, according to Mayor Vadym Lyakh, who said no injuries were reported. But he urged residents to leave and said a convoy of buses would be organised for Friday. In Rubizhne, Russian fire prevented attempts to bring buses in for civilian evacuation, according to Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai.
More intensive shelling was also heard overnight in Kharkiv, a northeastern city that lies outside of the Donbas but has seen strikes repeatedly recently.
If successful, the campaign in the Donbas would give Putin a vital piece of the country and a badly needed victory to show the Russian people amid the war’s mounting casualties and the economic hardship caused by Western sanctions.
But analysts say Russian forces have yet to have any major breakthroughs there. A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said the Ukrainians were hindering the Russian effort to push south from Izyum, which lies outside of the Donbas.
“Russian forces continued offensive operations in eastern Ukraine but made only marginal gains,” according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which has chronicled the campaign on a daily basis.
Despite that, a Russian official repeated Friday that its forces aim to take full control of eastern and southern Ukraine, noting the latter would provide land corridor to Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014. Rustam Minnekayev, a senior military official, said such a move would also open the way to Moldova, where Russia backs the breakaway region of Transnistria. Moldovan officials are warily watching Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
The US pledged Thursday to dramatically ramp up the delivery of artillery guns to Ukraine for the escalating battle in the Donbas.
The battle for Mariupol has been seen as key to the eastern assault. But the institute said in an assessment published late Thursday that Russian forces in the city were likely heavily damaged and thus Moscow would struggle to redeploy them quickly to the larger campaign in the east.
Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering of the war, and the satellite images released Thursday hinted at even more.
In the images, long rows of dirt mounds stretch away from an existing cemetery in Manhush, outside Mariupol. Local officials accused Russia of burying up to 9000 Ukrainian civilians in mass graves in an effort to conceal the slaughter taking place in the port city, which has been under siege since the early days of the war.
“The bodies of the dead were being brought by the truckload and actually simply being dumped in mounds,” Piotr Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, said on Telegram.
There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin on the satellite pictures. When mass graves and hundreds of dead civilians were discovered in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv after Russian troops retreated three weeks ago, Russian officials denied that their soldiers killed any civilians there and falsely accused Ukraine of staging the atrocities.
The UN Human Rights office condemned the Russian invasion in the strongest terms Friday.
“Over these eight weeks, international humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.
People fleeing Mariupol have described being trapped in horrible conditions. Yuriy and Polina Lulac said they spent nearly two months living in a basement with at least a dozen other people with no running water and little food.
“What was happening there was so horrible that you can’t describe it,” said Yuriy Lulac, who used a derogatory word for the Russian troops, saying they were “killing people for nothing.”
“Mariupol is gone. In the courtyards there are just graves and crosses,” he said.