Lviv/Kyiv – Russia launched its long-awaited all-out assault on east Ukraine on Tuesday, unleashing thousands of troops in what Ukraine described as the Battle of the Donbas, a campaign to seize two provinces and salvage a battlefield victory.
Ukrainian officials insisted their troops would withstand the new assault, which they said began overnight with massive Russian artillery and rocket barrages, and attempts to advance across almost the entire stretch of the eastern front.
In the first reported success of Russia’s new assault, Ukraine said the Russians had seized Kreminna, a frontline town of 18 000 people in Luhansk, one of the two Donbas provinces.
“Kreminna is under the control of the ‘Orcs’. They have entered the city,” the province’s Ukrainian governor, Sergiy Gaidai, told a media briefing, invoking the goblin-like creatures who appear in J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy books.
Russian forces are attacking “on all sides”, authorities are trying to evacuate civilians and it is impossible to tally the civilian dead, Gaidai said.
Moscow gave few details about its new campaign, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that “another stage of this operation is beginning”.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the aim was to “liberate” Donetsk and Luhansk, provinces which Moscow demands Kyiv cede fully to Russia-backed separatists.
In the ruins of Mariupol, a southeastern port destroyed while withstanding nearly eight weeks of siege, Russia gave the last Ukrainian defenders holed up in a giant steel works an ultimatum to surrender by noon (5 a.m. East Caribbean Time) or die.
“All who lay down their arms are guaranteed to remain alive,” the defence ministry said.
The pro-Kremlin leader of Chechnya, whose forces have been fighting in Mariupol, predicted troops would capture the plant on Tuesday.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Ukrainians in a video address overnight that they would withstand the new advance.
“No matter how many Russian troops they send there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves,” he said.
Driven back by Ukrainian forces in March from an assault on Kyiv in the north, Russia has poured troops into the east to regroup for a ground offensive in the Donbas.
It has also been launching long-distance strikes at other targets, including the capital.