The Kremlin’s stated goal is the capture of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that is home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories vital to Ukraine’s economy. Detaching it would give Putin a badly needed victory two months into the war, after the botched attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv.
Analysts say the offensive in the east could devolve into a grim war of attrition as Russia runs up against Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have been fighting pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for the past eight years.
With the potentially pivotal offensive underway, Russia said it has presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands as part of talks aimed at ending the conflict — days after Putin said the negotiations were at a “dead end”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “the ball is in their court, we’re waiting for a response.” He gave no details on the draft, and it was not clear when it was sent or if it offered anything new to the Ukrainians, who presented their own demands last month.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser said Kyiv was reviewing the proposals.
Moscow has long demanded, among other things, that Ukraine drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it would agree to that in return for security guarantees from a number of other countries.
In devastated Mariupol, Ukraine said the Russians dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of the sprawling Azvostal steel plant, believed to be the last pocket of resistance in the city. A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians’ estimate, remained in the plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers encompassing about 11 square kilometres.
A Ukrainian posted a video plea on Facebook urging world leaders to help evacuate people from the plant, saying: “We have more than 500 wounded soldiers and hundreds of civilians with us, including women and children.”
The officer, who identified himself as Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Marine Brigade, said: “This may be our last appeal. We may have only a few days or hours left.” The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
The Russian side issued a new ultimatum to the defenders to surrender on Wednesday, but the Ukrainians have ignored previous demands to leave the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers.
All told, more than 100,000 people were believed trapped in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said there was a preliminary agreement to open a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly to leave and head west to the Ukraine-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko urged residents to leave, though previous such agreements have fallen apart, with the Russians shelling escape routes or otherwise preventing buses meant to pick up evacuees from entering the city.
“Do not be frightened and evacuate to Zaporizhzhia, where you can receive all the help you need — food, medicine, essentials — and the main thing is that you will be in safety,” the mayor said in a statement.
As Russia continued to funnel troops and equipment into the Donbas, Western nations rushed to boost the flow of military supplies to Kyiv for this new phase of the war, which is likely to involve trench warfare, long-range artillery attacks and tank battles across relatively open terrain.
US President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new weapons package in the coming days that will include additional artillery, and Canada and the Netherlands also said they would send more heavy weapons.
Putin, meanwhile, hailed the launch of the Sarmat as “a big, significant event” for Russia’s defence industry and praised the missile as having “no equivalents in the world”.
The Sarmat is intended to eventually replace the Soviet-built missile code-named Satan by NATO as a major component of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Looking for a path to peace, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres requested meetings with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their respective capitals. The U.N. received no immediate response.
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