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  • The San Juan Daily Star

In Ukraine, devastation spreads as Russia regroups for new offensive

An undated photo provided by Andrian Kudelya, a 35-year-old sailor from Kyiv, Ukraine who said he would look for jobs where he would not have to work with Russians.

By Marc Santora, Peter Baker and Richard Pérez-Peña

At least 140,000 residential buildings in Ukraine destroyed or damaged. More than 3.5 million people left homeless. More than 12 million displaced. New tallies were added Tuesday to the merciless accounting that measures the losses from Russia’s invasion.

Each day, the bloodshed, dislocation and devastation grow. Two civilians were killed and five others badly injured trying to flee Russian-held territory in the southern Kherson region, Ukrainian officials said Tuesday. The administrator of the neighboring Kryvyi Rih region said Russian forces had fired on their red minibus at “point-blank range.”

In the east, the focus of recent Russian offensives, an emergency evacuation train carrying “women, children, elderly people, many people with reduced mobility” made its way Tuesday morning to safer territory in the west, Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy prime minister, said in a statement.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded with some 200,000 civilians in the east to evacuate the already depopulated areas near the front lines, where Russian artillery has laid waste to whole towns. Those who remain are disproportionately the old, the infirm, the Russian sympathizers or the merely stubborn. Most already lack essential infrastructure such as power, heat and clean water.

If they wait until cold weather sets in this fall, Vereshchuk said — by which time Russia may have resumed major offensive operations — there will be little the government in Kyiv can do for them.

A month after seizing full control of the Luhansk region, the easternmost part of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces are regrouping for an expected push to conquer what they do not already hold of the neighboring Donetsk region. But the combat never fully lets up, and every day the Russians still pound targets around the country.

The Ukrainian military said Tuesday that it had repelled multiple attempts by the Russians to advance on the city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region. In the south, Ukrainian forces have driven the Russians back and are expected to make a major push to retake the strategic city of Kherson.

President Joe Biden on Monday announced $550 million more in arms for Ukraine, bringing to more than $8 billion the U.S. investment in the war effort since Russia invaded Feb. 24. The arrival of advanced, long-range artillery from the United States and its allies has helped the Ukrainians stabilize their defensive positions in the east and begin to mount a counteroffensive in the south.

The latest U.S. arms transfer will include ammunition for the HIMARS rocket launchers that have been used to destroy Russian command posts and ammunition depots, as well as for American 155 mm howitzers already in use by Ukrainian troops, said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council.

“The power of the democratic world is well felt on the battlefield in Ukraine this week,” Zelenskyy said in his overnight address to the nation.

But Ukraine’s determination to defend itself has come at a frightful cost that numbers can only begin to describe. The country does not release public counts of military casualties, and civilian casualties in areas overrun by Russia are guesses, at best, but tens of thousands of Ukrainians are estimated to have been killed, with many more wounded.

The Kremlin insists that it strikes only military targets, a claim belied by images of ruined apartment blocks, houses, schools, farms, hospitals and shops. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that at least 140,000 residential buildings had been destroyed or damaged, leaving more than 3.5 million people homeless.

The U.N. refugee agency said the number of people who have left Ukraine since Feb. 24 had topped 10 million, although many of those later returned. The United Nations now counts about 6.2 million Ukrainians as refugees who have moved elsewhere in Europe during the war, and 6.3 million as “internally displaced,” people who have fled the fighting but remain within Ukraine — by far the largest migration crisis in Europe since the aftermath of World War II.

That means at least 30% of the country’s estimated prewar population of 41 million has been forced from their homes.

The State Department on Tuesday announced a major new round of sanctions, including economic and travel restrictions, targeting Russian companies, institutions and individuals with ties to the Kremlin or its war effort. The list includes several billionaire business magnates, as well as Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gymnast and member of the Russian Duma who is widely described as Putin’s romantic partner.

In the United States, lawmakers have pressured the Biden administration to label Russia a state sponsor of terror, a designation that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has so far resisted. On Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned that it could react to such a move by cutting off direct relations with Washington, along with taking unspecified other measures.

“A logical result of this irresponsible step could be the breaking off of diplomatic relations, after which Washington runs the risk of crossing the point of no return with all the ensuing consequences,” said Maria Zakharova, the ministry spokesperson.

Russia’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Ukraine’s Azov regiment, a group with far-right roots, is a terrorist organization, which could clear the way to captured soldiers being criminally charged with terrorism rather than being treated as prisoners of war. Many of the troops who made a last stand in Mariupol, Ukraine, tying down Russian forces and living for nearly three months in bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant complex before surrendering, were from that regiment.

Last Friday, an explosion at a prison in the Donetsk region killed more than 50 of the Azovstal fighters taken prisoner by Russians. Each side has blamed the other for the explosion.

A hint of good news came Tuesday when the first cargo ship to leave Ukraine carrying grain for an increasingly hungry world reached Turkish waters. More are expected to follow soon.

Under an agreement reached with Turkey and the United Nations, Russia has agreed to allow such vessels, subject to inspection, to pass through its naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Turkish officials said the first ship, the Razoni, will be inspected Wednesday morning near the entrance to the Bosporus, before continuing to its destination, the port of Tripoli in Lebanon.

More than 20 million tons of food have been stuck in Ukrainian ports for more than five months, and the backlog is growing as more is harvested — even as shortages and soaring prices lead to growing world hunger. Aid groups welcomed the prospect of the grain being released but said that far more needed to be done to prevent famine in regions stricken by drought and global warming.

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