Heavy fighting raged on the outskirts of Kyiv and other zones Thursday amid indications the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as cover while regrouping and resupplying its forces and redeploying them for a stepped-up offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an early morning video address that Ukraine is seeing “a buildup of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas, and we are preparing for that.”
Meanwhile, a convoy of buses headed to Mariupol in another bid to evacuate people from the besieged port city after the Russian military agreed to a limited cease-fire in the area. And a new round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting was scheduled for Friday.
The Red Cross said its teams were headed for Mariupol with relief and medical supplies and hoped to help pull civilians out of the beleaguered city. Tens of thousands have managed to get out in the past few weeks by way of humanitarian corridors, reducing the city’s population from a prewar 430,000 to an estimated 100,000, but other efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.
At the same time, Russian forces shelled suburbs of the capital that Ukraine recently retook control of, a regional official said, two days after the Kremlin announced it would significantly scale back operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”
Britain’s Defense Ministry also confirmed “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv. The area’s governor, Viacheslav Chaus, said Russian troops were on the move but may not be withdrawing.
Russia’s Defense Ministry also reported new strikes on Ukrainian fuel stores late Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said there were artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.
Despite the fighting raging in those areas, the Russian military said it committed to a cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses would be sent to collect civilians who have suffered some of the worst privations of the war. Food, water and medical supplies have all run low during a weekslong blockade and bombardment of the city. Civilians who have managed to leave have typically done so using private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles left in the city has dwindled and fuel is low.
“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place,” the Red Cross said in a statement. “The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”
As the new evacuation attempt was announced, evidence emerged that a Red Cross warehouse in the city had been struck earlier this month amid intense Russian shelling.
In satellite pictures from Planet Labs PBC, holes can be seen in the roof, along with a painted red cross on a white background. The aid organization said no staff have been at the site since March 15.
Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, six weeks into a bloody war that has seen thousands die and a staggering 4 million Ukrainians flee the country.
But there seemed little faith that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon, particularly after the Russian military’s about-face and its most recent attacks on places where it had offered to dial back.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance intelligence indicates that Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead repositioning and redeploying forces to join attacks in the Donbas.
The Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. In the past few days, the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said that its “main goal” now is gaining control of the Donbas.
“Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region,” Stoltenberg said. At the same time, he said, pressure is being kept up on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering.”
In the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media that Russian forces shelled Irpin and Makariv, and that there were battles around Hostomel. Pavliuk said there were Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals around the suburb of Brovary to the east.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said: “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units. Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”
As Western officials search for clues about what Russia’s next move might be, a top British intelligence official said demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.
In a speech in Australia, Jeremy Fleming said Russian President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion. Although Putin’s advisers appeared to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” said Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency,.
U.S. intelligence officials have similarly concluded that Putin is being misinformed by advisers too scared to give honest evaluations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the U.S. is wrong and that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon possesses the real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”
“They don’t understand President Putin, they don’t understand the mechanism of decision-making, they don’t understand the way we work,” Peskov said.
In other developments, Putin authorized drafting 134,500 new conscripts starting April 1. The draft is a routine event but comes amid concerns that some draftees could be deployed to Ukraine.
Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have given assurances that conscripts will not take part in the operation in Ukraine. Earlier this month, however, the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts ended up in Ukraine and were even captured there.