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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine’s military says Crimea blast was preparation for coming offensive

Visitors view Miniland, a model railroad with reconstructions of buildings and architectural features from across Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, April 20, 2023.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

An attack on an oil depot in Russian-occupied Crimea that sparked a huge fire and sent a plume of black smoke billowing into the sky was part of Ukraine’s preparations for a counteroffensive, a Ukrainian military spokesperson said Sunday.

The fire early Saturday in the city of Sevastopol, the home to the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet, is the latest example of what looks to be the next phase of a conflict that has for months been marked by bitter fighting, crawling advances and deadly shelling along the frontline and across the border between the two countries.

The depot fire, according to the spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern command, Natalia Humeniuk, is part of preparations for “the broad, full-scale offensive that everyone expects.” She told Ukrainian television on Sunday that it was crucial to target Russia’s logistical capacity before the counteroffensive.

Russian officials had blamed the explosion on a Ukrainian drone attack.

Crimea, a region illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014, was a key staging ground for the southern part of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The belt of land spread across the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions just north of Crimea is viewed as a likely target for the coming counteroffensive. Russia has held that territory, along the coast of the Sea of Azov, since shortly after the invasion.

The tempo of strikes in Crimea and in cities such as Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region has increased in recent weeks, a potential sign of their importance to a coming counteroffensive that is set to be powered by fresh supplies of advanced Western military equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers that have already arrived in the country.

While President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine says that reclaiming Crimea is a national priority, Ukrainian officials and military experts say that it is highly unlikely that the peninsula would be the immediate target of the coming campaign. Crimea is well behind Russian lines, and Russia has been attempting to strengthen its defenses along the coast, laying land mines and building obstacles to slow tanks.

Ukraine and Russia have both taken heavy casualties in hard-fought ground campaigns in the Donbas region, particularly around the city of Bakhmut, and the country’s south and east are believed to be the most likely theaters for Ukraine’s coming offensive. But shelling has remained a fixture in the daily lives of civilians from both countries in regions far from the most intense fighting.

On Sunday, four civilians were killed when Ukrainian shelling hit a Russian village close to Ukraine’s northeastern border, according to the governor of the Bryansk region, Alexander Bogomaz. Two people were also injured when several rockets struck the village of Suzemka, about 6 miles from the border with Ukraine’s Sumy region.

Sumy has itself been a frequent target of Russian shelling in recent months, and the regional military administration said Sunday that Russian forces had fired a total of 57 shells on nine communities overnight, although no injuries were reported.

Ukrainian officials did report two civilian deaths from Russian shelling Sunday, both in the country’s south. Shelling killed a woman and injured a man in the Kherson region, where Russia has been targeting territory that Ukrainian forces recaptured last fall, and one person was killed and two wounded in Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Neither country’s claims of civilian casualties could be independently verified.

Biden praises ‘absolute courage’ of detained US journalist

President Joe Biden, speaking at the annual White House Association Correspondents’ dinner Saturday, said the United States is “working every day” to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned in Russia.

Gershkovich was detained in Russia in March and accused of espionage, a charge that his employer and the United States emphatically reject. The State Department this month designated the journalist as “wrongfully detained,” signifying that the U.S. government sees him as the equivalent of a political hostage.

On Saturday, Biden spoke of Gershkovich’s “absolute courage” and said everyone at the event stood with the reporter. “Our message is this: Journalism is not a crime,” he said.

Gershkovich’s case represents the most significant attack on international journalists in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion. It is also the first time that a Western journalist in Russia has been charged with espionage since the end of the Cold War.

In his speech, Biden also spoke of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared in Syria in August 2012, soon after the country’s civil war began. It is believed that, since then, he has been held captive by the government of President Bashar Assad.

“Evan and Austin should be released immediately along with every other American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” Biden said.

A shake-up in Russia’s defense ministry

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced a high-level leadership shake-up on Sunday, replacing its head of logistics after just seven months in the job.

Col. Gen. Mikhail Y. Mizintsev — nicknamed the “butcher of Mariupol” by Western officials — assumed the role in late September after an embarrassing rout of Russian forces in northeast Ukraine. But Russia has struggled to advance on the battlefield since he took up the logistics post, making only marginal territorial gains in Ukraine’s east.

Mizintsev, 60, was put on international sanctions lists and accused of atrocities for his role in the brutal siege of the southern port city of Mariupol. Russia’s Defense Ministry did not directly announce his removal or say what he would do next. Instead, it simply said that Col. Gen. Aleksey Kuzmenkov had been appointed to lead “combat service support of the Russian armed forces.”

Kuzmenkov had served since 2019 as the head of Russia’s National Guard troops, the ministry said in a statement posted on Telegram.

Fighting for Bakhmut’s ‘road of life’

Despite intense fighting, Russian forces have so far failed to capture a supply route that is key to Ukraine’s defense of the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, the spokesperson for the eastern group of Ukraine’s army said Saturday.

Keeping the route open between Bakhmut and the town of Chasiv Yar, a few miles to the west, has been crucial for Ukraine’s campaign to hold onto the city in the face of a Russian onslaught that began last summer. The area of Bakhmut has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the eastern front, and both sides have sustained heavy casualties.

“For several weeks now, Russians have been talking about seizing the ‘road of life,’ as well as about constant fire control over it,” said the spokesperson, Serhiy Cherevatyi. While he called the situation there “difficult,” he told a Ukrainian news website that Russian forces have been unable to cut off the route to Chasiv Yar, one of two important roads leading west out of Bakhmut.

Once home to around 70,000 people, Bakhmut is now mostly ruined. Although its strategic value is debatable, the city carries symbolic importance for both sides, which have sought to exhaust and bog down each other’s forces.

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