Ukraine preparing for new Russian offensive in the east, Zelenskiy says

A three-year-old boy who was wounded during the shelling of Mariupol, lies in a bed in children’s ward of the hospital, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 29.

LVIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces are preparing for new Russian attacks in the east of the country as Moscow builds up its troops there after suffering setbacks near the capital Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday.

Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, now in its fifth week, has driven around a quarter of Ukrainians from their homes and brought Russian-Western tensions to their worst point since the Cold War.

Tough resistance by Ukrainian forces has prevented Russia from capturing any major city, including Kyiv, where a Russian armed column was held back for weeks. At peace talks this week in Istanbul, Russia said it would curtail operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to build trust.

But Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, dismissed Russia’s pledge as a ploy to stem its losses and prepare for other attacks. Russia says its forces are regrouping to focus on “liberating” the breakaway eastern Donbas region.

In an early morning video address, Zelenskiy referred to Russian troop movements away from Kyiv and Chernihiv and said that was not a withdrawal but rather “the consequence of our defenders’ work.”

Zelenskiy added that Ukraine is seeing “a build-up of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas and we are preparing for that.”

Moscow has cultivated close ties with pro-Russian separatists controlling swathes of the Donbas region, which encompasses two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” that Russia says it is helping to free from Ukrainian control.

The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said on Wednesday that offensive operations were intensifying.

“We are well aware that the longer it takes us to liberate our territory, those settlements that are now under control of Ukraine, the more victims and destruction there will be,” he said.

Donetsk includes the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the war’s heaviest fighting and bombardment and where some 170,000 people are trapped with scarce food and water.

“We cook what we find among neighbors. A bit of cabbage, a bit more of potatoes, we’ve found tomato paste, some beetroot,” said former steel worker Viktor from Mariupol. They cook using a rudimentary barbecue and sleep in a basement, which he termed their “peaceful oasis.”

Russian forces have taken half of the strategic port city, an adviser to Zelenskiy said on Wednesday. Russia’s defense ministry said it was prepared to observe a ceasefire in Mariupol on Thursday, Russian news agencies reported.

Kyiv has accused Russia of not fully respecting earlier such commitments. Moscow denies targeting civilians.

Peace talks, gas prices

Russia says it is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor. Western countries say Moscow’s invasion, the biggest assault on a European country since World War Two, was entirely unprovoked.

The fate of the southeastern Donbas region, which Russia demands Ukraine cede to the separatists, was a topic of discussion at peace talks held on Tuesday at an Istanbul palace. A senior Ukrainian negotiator said the talks will resume online on Friday.

Ukraine has sought a ceasefire without compromising on territory or sovereignty, though it has proposed adopting a neutral status in exchange for security guarantees. Russia opposes Ukraine joining the U.S.-led NATO military alliance, and has cited its potential membership as a reason for the invasion.

Western sanctions imposed on Russia as punishment for its invasion have largely isolated its economy from world trade but Moscow is still the biggest supplier of oil and gas to Europe.

Seeking to exert its leverage, Russia demanded oil and gas payments be made in roubles by Friday, raising fears of energy shortages and boosting recessionary risks in Europe. Germany has warned of a possible emergency if Russia cuts supplies.

Floating a potential compromise, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that payments could be made in euros and sent to Gazprombank, which would convert the money to roubles, a German government spokesperson said.

“Scholz did not agree to this procedure in the conversation, but asked for written information to better understand the procedure,” the spokesperson said.

Gazprombank, one of the main channels for payments for Russian oil and gas, is not subject to EU sanctions.

Sanctions imposed on Russia have helped drive oil prices up to their highest in over a decade. U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration has pledged to supply more gas to the EU to reduce its reliance on Russia, will give remarks Thursday on efforts to lower gas prices, the White House said.

‘Squeezed out’

Global restrictions on exports to Russia over its invasion have shut down a car maker, halted work on tanks, and cut off a Russian computer maker’s access to circuits used in communications equipment, a U.S. official said.

“Necessity brought together this unprecedented collaboration on export controls and other measures that are having a meaningful impact on Putin’s war,” said Thea Kendler, an official with the U.S. Commerce Department.

Russia says the West has effectively declared economic war on Russia and so it will now turn eastwards, away from Europe to build a partnership with China.

The head of Britain’s GCHQ spy service said there were risks to both Russia and China in being too closely aligned.

“Russia understands that long term, China will become increasingly strong militarily and economically,” Jeremy Fleming said in a speech in Canberra.

“Some of their interests conflict; Russia could be squeezed out of the equation,” Fleming said.