Russia says it has begun a new phase of the invasion of Ukraine as fighting raged in the Donbas region and officials urged civilians to flee.
“Another phase of this operation is beginning and I am sure it will be a very important moment in this entire special operation,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during an interview to India Today TV channel.
Russia’s defence ministry said that “high-precision air-based missiles” had hit 13 Ukrainian positions in parts of the Donbas while other air raids “hit 60 military assets”, including in towns close to the eastern front line.
Ukraine’s armed forces also confirmed that fighting had increased throughout the east, just hours after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had kicked off the widely anticipated offensive in Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
“The Russian occupiers intensified offensive operations along the entire line of contact,” the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a report early Tuesday.
Before the advance, Ukrainian authorities had urged people in Donbas to flee west to escape, even as officials called off evacuations for a third straight day from front-line cities due to the continuing fighting.
“No matter how many Russian soldiers are brought here, we will fight. We will defend ourselves,” Zelenskyy said on Telegram late Monday.
Control of Donbas and the besieged port city of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the Crimean Peninsula that it annexed in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of much of its coastline and a major revenue resource.
Moscow describes the invasion, launched on February 24, as a “special military operation” designed to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine.
Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for an unprovoked attack that has forced millions to flee abroad and killed or wounded thousands of people.