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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Russian shelling kills 6 as assault stalls in Ukraine’s east

Ukrainian soldiers monitoring the movements of Russian troops on the front line in Toretsk, in eastern Ukraine on March 29, 2023.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Maria Varenikova and Ivan Nechepurenko

Russian shelling blasted apartment blocks, homes and a preschool in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, killing six civilians, even as evidence mounted that Moscow has failed to make much progress in its campaign to seize the whole of the region.

For months, the fighting in the Donbas, an industrial and agricultural region close to the Russian border, has been the scene of grinding battles that have sapped the strength of both armies.

But while Russia has struggled to gain territory against Ukraine’s military, it has regularly launched attacks on civilians. The latest such attack involved the shelling of a town around 15 miles west of the front line, Kostyantynivka, that killed three men and three women and wounded 11 others, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.

The attack damaged numerous apartment buildings, spraying wet earth and shrapnel. Soldiers helped civilians clear away rubble and cover broken windows with plywood. Workers found the body of one of the victims, an elderly man, next to a huge crater in his vegetable garden.

“What will we do at night? Not a single window is left!” said Nadia Peskun, 61, who lives in the town with her daughter and twin 11-year-old granddaughters. She added: “We all hid here in the corridor, hugging one another and screaming.”

An hour after the strike, the children were still sitting in corridors away from windows, playing on tablets and not lifting their eyes.

The civilian toll in Donbas, which is made up of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, has been enormous. According to U.N. data, more than half of the roughly 18,000 civilians killed in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale offensive in February of 2022 have died in those two regions.

But the Kremlin’s main objective in the east is conquest, and Russian forces have been stymied by the Ukrainian defenders. Russia’s military bloggers and like-minded activists have in recent weeks lamented the lack of progress from the winter campaign. Russia has not secured victory in the city of Bakhmut, or in the towns or Avdiivka, Vuhledar, Lyman or Marinka.

“The winter campaign in the Donbas is over,” said Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who led a military intervention in eastern Ukraine and now blogs about military affairs. “We can say that the winter campaign ended unsuccessfully.” The comments by Girkin, who uses the nickname Strelkov, were echoed by others in Russia who have ties to the military and have at times been critical of the Kremlin’s approach to the war.

Russia’s winter offensive followed a series of battlefield setbacks last fall. In the early days of the invasion, Ukraine was also successful in fending off the toppling of its government in Kyiv.

Moscow has had more success weathering the diplomatic isolation imposed by Ukraine’s Western allies, aimed at punishing the Kremlin and eroding its ability to wage the war. For instance, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, made a three-day state visit to Moscow last month.

In a further example of Moscow’s continued global prominence, Russia assumed the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, a prestigious if largely ceremonial post it will give up next month.

Russia’s assumption of the post — just two weeks after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin of Russia on accusations of war crimes — elicited a furious response from Zelenskyy, who called it “obviously absurd and destructive.”

He attacked not just Moscow but the structure of a system that allows Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, to take the U.N. leadership post even as it prosecutes a war condemned by much of the world, saying it “proves the complete bankruptcy of such institutions.”

Russia took over the Security Council presidency Saturday, just a few days after the deterioration of its international relationships were underscored by its arrest of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter. Russian authorities accuse him of espionage, which the United States and the newspaper call a bogus charge.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he had spoken with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Sunday and demanded Gershkovich’s release. Blinken said on Twitter that he had expressed “grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist.”

Even as Russia exerts its influence on the international stage, it has paid dearly on the battlefield. Ukraine has suffered high casualties, too, but some military experts say those faced by Russia have been far higher.

A Ukrainian military expert, Oleksiy Melnyk, said that two factors in particular had served to impede Russia’s campaign this year. The first was the battle for Vuhledar in Donetsk, in which elite Russian forces sustained severe losses, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The second was Ukraine’s decision not to abandon Bakhmut as Russia advanced around the city, including capturing the nearby town of Soledar.

“The Russian offensive campaign is about to end,” Melnyk said in an interview. “It seems they will not try a major offensive any time soon.”

But he cautioned that the Kremlin appeared to be laying plans for a protracted conflict, aiming to drain Ukraine’s fighting strength over time and waiting for international support for the government in Kyiv to wane.

Many military experts in the United States and elsewhere have started to measure the modest gains of Russia’s offensive against what they expect to be a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the coming weeks. Some analysts, however, noted that there would be little disappointment within Russia, because the campaign had not been widely discussed by state media.

Dmitri Kuznets, a military analyst who writes about the war for Meduza, an independent Russian-language news site published in Latvia, downplayed the long-term significance of the offensive for Moscow, arguing that it was not possible to judge without knowing its precise objectives.

“We will know the result of this entire winter campaign for both Russia and Ukraine only after the Ukrainian counteroffensive happens,” he said in an interview.

Both sides have also been building up their forces in southern Ukraine, where Moscow suffered a major setback last fall. Retaking the Crimea region, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014, is a major territorial objective of the government in Kyiv. But to do so, it will need to capture ground on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River in the Zaporizhzhia region.

If and when Ukraine does launch its counteroffensive, it can make use of stocks of weapons supplied in recent months by the United States and other allies and deploy newly trained soldiers.

Menlyk, the Ukrainian military expert, said the counteroffensive could come in the next few weeks, “once the ground becomes suitable for tanks to move across open fields.”

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