Even greater peril to civilians seen as Russia readies eastern Ukraine onslaught

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky telling compatriots to brace for a fateful week, Western military officials warned Monday that Russian forces will likely resort to even more brutal tactics against civilians in a looming offensive in the country’s south and east.

Nearly seven weeks into a war in which the Kremlin has attained virtually none of its strategic objectives, Russian President Vladimir Putin was expected Monday to hold his first face-to-face talks with a European leader since launching the Feb. 24 invasion. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced the planned meeting, declaring that Russia’s “war of aggression” must cease.

European leaders signaled that more sanctions against Moscow may be in the works, but the bloc is running out of ways to try to force Putin to break off the biggest ground war in Europe in decades which has triggered the continent’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 4.5 million Ukrainians have now fled the country, according to the latest U.N. figures, and around another 7 million are internally displaced.

“Sanctions are always on the table,” the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told reporters as he headed into a meeting on Monday with the bloc’s foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

The U.S., meanwhile, was stepping up diplomatic efforts to bring more countries into the anti-Russia coalition. President Biden was to hold a virtual meeting Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India is a U.S. ally, but has not imposed any sanctions against Russia.

With a ferocious new phase of the war considered all but certain, Ukrainian civilians continued to try to escape from what is expected to become the next main battleground, the country’s eastern industrial heartland and its southern seacoasts.

Even with nearly another 3,000 people fleeing those areas on Sunday, according to Ukrainian officials, the pace of the exodus has been slowed by fear of more attacks like the one on a railway station last week in the city of Kramatorsk, whose death toll has risen to at least 57.

Zelensky said Monday that Russia’s ongoing assault on the southern port of Mariupol had “destroyed” the city and left tens of thousands of people dead. Mariupol is almost completely cut off, and the figure could not be independently confirmed.

“Despite this, the Russians are not stopping their offensive,” the Ukrainian leader told South Korea’s parliament in the latest in a series of near-daily video addresses to lawmakers around the world to drum up support for his beleaguered country.

Since the start of the war, Moscow’s forces have sought to capture Mariupol in order to establish a land corridor between Russian-controlled areas of the east and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized eight years ago.

A British military intelligence assessment on Monday warned that Russia may resort to the use of phosphorus weapons in its bid to finally secure control of the city, and said civilians in many areas were imperiled by the invaders’ use of indiscriminate firepower.

“Russia’s continued reliance on unguided bombs decreases their ability to discriminate when targeting and conducting strikes, while greatly increasing the risk of further civilian casualties,” the assessment said. Artillery strikes rocked several eastern cities early Monday, as air-raid sirens wailed.

In his overnight video address, Zelensky said Russia was trying to evade responsibility for war crimes such as the reign of terror visited on areas outside Kyiv during a monthlong occupation before abandoning the bid to swiftly seize the capital cityand topple the Ukrainian government.

Investigators and Ukrainian forces have been on the ground daily in satellite towns outside Kyiv, recovering bodies of civilians, many killed execution-style and thrown into mass graves. Ukrainian officials say the count of fatalities in those outlying areas has surpassed 1,200.

“We are doing everything we can to bring to justice every bastard who came to our land under the Russian flag and killed our people, who tortured our people, destroyed our cities, looted and tormented,” Zelensky said.

He added that the coming week will be as “tense” as any in the course of the war, as Russian forces prepare to stage “even larger operations in the east of our state.”

In laying groundwork for that offensive, Russian missiles strikes destroyed the central city of Dnipro’s airport in a missile strike on Sunday, Ukrainian officials acknowledged. But Ukrainian forces have also repulsed several assaults in eastern regions, “resulting in the destruction of Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery equipment,” the British military assessment said.

Russian forces kept up unrelenting strikes on the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest. The regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, wrote on the messaging app Telegram that 11 people, including a child, died in bombardment on Sunday, with Russia “again attacking peaceful civilians.”

Bulos reported from Mykolaiv and King from Warsaw, Poland.

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