Russia begins large-scale military action to seize eastern Ukraine

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Russia has began its large-scale military action to seize the east of Ukraine, the country’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said.

“Now we can already state that the Russian troops have begun the battle for the Donbas, for which they have been preparing for a long time,” he said in a video address. Zelenskiy said a “significant part of the entire Russian army is now concentrated on this offensive”.

He added: “No matter how many soldiers are driven there, we will defend ourselves. We will fight. We will not give up anything Ukrainian.”

The president’s comments follow a dramatic escalation of attacks by Russia ahead of the long-anticipated operation. Vladimir Putin has declared his intention to seize Donbas, the industrial heartland in the east of the country already partly controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Zelenskiy made clear that the Ukrainian army would battle any attempted advance by Moscow. “No matter how many Russian troops are driven there, we will fight,” he said. “We will defend ourselves. We will do it every day.”

Earlier on Monday Russia unleashed a barrage of long-range missiles across Ukraine, in what analysts described as a “softening up” exercise before its military push.

Shelling in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region also killed four people, said the regional governor, Pavlo Kirilenko.

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Ukrainian government officials warned Russian war-planes were preparing to drop five-tonne bombs on the Azovstal plant in the besieged city of Mariupol. Ukrainian soldiers have been holding out in tunnels under the factory for seven weeks.

The underground complex is also being used as a shelter by hundreds of civilians including children. They were about to be wiped out, the officials said.

There are 76 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the Donbas region and in the country’s southeast, a senior US defence department official said on Monday night. Eleven of those groups were added in recent days.

BTGs are typically composed of combined-arms elements, such as air defence, armour, tactical vehicles, artillery, helicopters and logistical support. There are about 22 BTGs north of Ukraine that are likely being resupplied and refitted, the official said in a statement late Monday.

Earlier on Monday four Russian rockets smashed into the western city of Lviv, killing seven people and injuring at least 11. Three hit military infrastructure. But the fourth appeared to have missed its target and landed in a car repair workshop.

The city, which is close to the Polish border, has become a haven for civilians fleeing the fighting elsewhere. To the Kremlin’s increasing anger, Lviv has also become a major gateway for Nato-supplied weapons.

Zelenskiy has also submitted a filled-out questionnaire in the first step toward obtaining membership in the EU – a desire that has been a source of tension with Moscow for years.

Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement that missiles had wiped out Ukrainian ammunition dumps and other military targets.

It said it had hit areas across the country, including the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia, as well as the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions and the southern port of Mykolaiv.

A powerful explosion was reported to have rocked Vasylkiv, a town south of Kyiv that is home to a military airbase, according to residents. There was also further deadly shelling in Kharkiv. Over the past four days, 18 people have been killed and 106 injured.

A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said there are now 76 Russian combat units, known as battalion tactical groups, in eastern and southern Ukraine, up from 65 last week.

That could translate to about 50,000 to 60,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war was the typical unit strength of 700 to 800 soldiers, but the numbers are difficult to pinpoint at this stage in the fighting.

The official also said that four US cargo flights arrived in Europe on Sunday with an initial delivery of weapons and other materials for Ukraine as part of a $800m (£615m) package announced by Washington last week. And training of Ukrainian personnel on US 155mm howitzers is set to begin in the next several days.

The capture of Mariupol, where Ukraine estimates 21,000 people have been killed, is seen as key, and not just because it would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Moscow eight years ago.

The US defence official said that if Russian forces succeed in taking full control of Mariupol, that could free up nearly a dozen battalion tactical groups for use elsewhere in the Donbas.

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