Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had begun a long-awaited major new offensive in the country’s eastern Donbas border region after its forces intensified attacks along the frontline.
Zelensky said in a late-night TV address on Monday that Russia had concentrated a “significant part” of its forces in the region and vowed that Ukraine would defend itself “however many troops they send there”.
“We will fight. We won’t give up anything Ukrainian,” he added.
Russia withdrew from several regions in central Ukraine in late March after failing to take Kyiv and said it would refocus its efforts on the Donbas, where it claims it is protecting Russian speakers in an eight-year separatist conflict.
Oleksiy Danilov, chairman of Ukraine’s national security council, said Russia’s attacks began on Monday morning across the frontline in the Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.
He said Ukrainian forces had surrendered two small towns but otherwise managed to hold their ground.
Though Russian president Vladimir Putin has said “liberating” the Donbas is Moscow’s main goal, Ukrainian officials are worried the new offensive could precede more attacks to capture territory in the rest of the country.
“Putin hasn’t removed the goal to destroy us as a state and our political leadership,” Danilov said on Ukrainian television. He claimed that Russian troops were trying to capture the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk regions before Orthodox Easter Sunday on April 24 as a “present” to Putin. Much of the region is already controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Earlier on Monday, a US defence official said Russia had added thousands of troops to southern and eastern Ukraine over the past several days in preparation for the Donbas offensive, a senior US defence official said.
Ahead of Zelensky’s announcement, John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said Russian forces “are shaping and setting the conditions for future offensive operations”.
Russia now has about 76 battalion tactical groups inside Ukraine, concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the country, representing an increase of about 11 battalion tactical groups, the official said.
Officials have previously said a Russian battalion tactical group averages about 800 to 1,000 troops, though the estimate is fluid because the US isn’t sure how the units have been reconstituted as the fighting has gone on, the senior official said.
Moscow has been conducting what the Pentagon describes as “shaping operations” aimed at preparing the ground for the offensive.
Russia has been moving heavy artillery, command and control enablers and aviation support into the Donbas, the official said.
“It appears as if they are trying to learn from the failed lessons of the north where they didn’t have proper sustainment capabilities,” the senior official said.
With Moscow’s brutal siege of Mariupol appearing to be in its final stages, the US assesses that Mariupol is “contested and isolated”, with fierce fighting continuing, the official said.
The US will also in the coming days begin training some Ukrainian forces outside of the country to use howitzers, the official said. A “training the trainers” approach will be employed, allowing Ukrainian troops to return to the battlefield and teach others. The most recent $800mn US aid package includes 18 155mm howitzers and 40,000 155mm artillery rounds, according to the Pentagon.