Volodymyr Zelensky assured that the Russian army is preparing to attack eastern Ukraine, particularly the besieged port of Mariupol. For its part, Russia has indicated that it intends to reduce its activity in kyiv in order to transfer its strikes to the separatist regions of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president assured that the Russian army was repositioning itself in the east of the country in anticipation of “powerful attacks”, in particular on the besieged port of Mariupol where a new attempt to evacuate civilians is to take place this Friday. Russia has indicated this week that it intends to reduce its activity in kyiv and Cherniguiv in order to transfer its strike power from the north to the (separatist) regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in the east. “It’s part of their tactic,” Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech overnight from Thursday to Friday.
“We know that they are moving away from the regions where we beat them to focus on others which are very important… where it can be difficult for us”, added the Ukrainian president. In particular, the situation in the east of the country is “very difficult”.
A repositioning of Russian troops
“In the Donbass and in Mariupol, in the direction of Kharkiv, the Russian army is strengthening in anticipation of powerful attacks,” said the Ukrainian president. A sentiment shared by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who believes that Russian forces “are not withdrawing, but are repositioning themselves” in the Donbass region, while maintaining “pressure on the capital kyiv and other cities”. This refocusing portends a “prolonged” conflict, which could last for months, the Pentagon has warned.
Military experts believe that Moscow has abandoned its plan to advance simultaneously along several axes in the north, east and south, due to the difficulties encountered in the face of stronger than expected Ukrainian resistance. According to US officials, Russia moved around 20% of its troops from around kyiv after failing to take the city.
But the strikes on the capital continue and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said it was likely troops “will be repositioned, probably in Belarus, for re-equipment and resupply and use elsewhere in Ukraine.”
More than a month after the invasion of Ukraine, Mariupul, a strategic port in south-eastern Ukraine, on the Sea of Azov, remains besieged and pounded relentlessly. At least 5,000 people died and 160,000 civilians are still believed to be stuck in the city.
The leader of the Russian Caucasian Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, thousands of whose men are fighting in this city, assured that 90 to 95% is under Russian control. He gave the last Ukrainian defenders, entrenched in the Azovstal metallurgical plant, a day to lay down their arms and surrender.
For its part, the British Ministry of Defense reported “intense fighting in Mariupol” but affirmed that the Ukrainians “retain control of the city center”. An evacuation attempt is scheduled for Friday. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to Ukraine tweeted that it was in the nearby town of Zaporozhye, where buses from the beleaguered town are supposed to arrive.
“We hope we can facilitate the safe passage of civilians desperate to flee Mariupol. We are also here with two assistance trucks,” the organization’s Lucile Marbeau said in a video posted on Twitter.
The Ukrainian government had announced that it had sent dozens of buses to Mariupol, and the local government said on Telegram that civilians could start boarding Friday morning in the neighboring town of Berdyansk.
People who managed to leave the besieged city and NGOs described catastrophic conditions there, with civilians holed up in cellars, deprived of water, food and communication, and corpses littering the streets. The municipality also accuses Moscow of having evacuated “against their will” more than 20,000 inhabitants to Russia.
On the diplomatic front, the EU wants to persuade China to give up helping Moscow to counter Western sanctions, during a virtual summit Friday with Beijing.
For her part, Roberta Metsola, the Maltese President of the European Parliament, indicated Thursday evening on Twitter that she was “on her way to kyiv”. She would be the first leader of a European institution to visit the Ukrainian capital since the start of the Russian invasion.
Previously, Vladimir Putin had announced that he was banning European leaders and the majority of MEPs from entering his territory, in response to all-out sanctions targeting Moscow. And he threatened buyers of Russian gas from “unfriendly” countries with cutting off their supply if they did not comply with Kremlin demands, a move intended to prop up the ruble that would mainly affect the highly dependent European Union.
“They have to open accounts in rubles in Russian banks. And from these accounts they will have to pay for the gas delivered, and that starting tomorrow,” he said. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz immediately replied that European countries will continue to pay for Russian gas in euros and dollars as is “written in the contracts”.
In this context, the French Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire, traveling to Berlin, signaled that France and Germany were “preparing” for a potential stoppage of Russian gas imports.
After five weeks of war, 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine, to which must be added almost 6.5 million internally displaced people, according to the UN. Some 90% of those who fled Ukraine are women and children. Officials in Kyiv announced late Thursday that Russian forces had left the Chernobyl nuclear power plant they had occupied since the first day of the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
“They took with them members of the National Guard whom they had been holding hostage since February 24,” Ukrainian state agency Energoatom said on Telegram, citing employees. Their number is not known.