(LVIV, Ukraine) — Russia launched its long-feared, full-scale ground offensive to take control of Ukraine’s east on Monday, attacking along a broad front over 300 miles (480 kilometers) long, Ukrainian officials said in what marked the opening of a new and potentially climactic phase of the war.
“The Russian troops have begun the battle for the Donbas,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in a video address. He said a “significant part of the entire Russian army is now concentrated on this offensive.”
The Donbas is Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for the past eight years and have declared two independent republics that have been recognized by Russia.
The Kremlin made the acquisition of the Donbas the primary goal of the war, after Kyiv’s attempted to invade it. Russia started to regroup and reinforce its east-facing ground troops after it had pulled out of the capital.
“No matter how many Russian troops are driven there, we will fight,” Zelenskyy vowed. “We will defend ourselves. We will do it every day.”
The offensive got underway after Russia bombarded the western city of Lviv and a multitude of other targets across Ukraine in what appeared to be an intensified bid to grind down the country’s defenses.
The Ukraine military’s general staff said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces were increasing assaults in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions — both of which are part of the Donbas — as well as in the area of Zaporizhzhia.
“This morning, almost along the whole front line of the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, the occupiers attempted to break through our defenses,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, was quoted as telling Ukrainian media. “Fortunately, our military is holding out. The soldiers passed only through two cities. This is Kreminna and another small town.”
He added: “We are not giving up any of our territories.”
Officials from Ukraine claimed that street battles began in Kreminna, and that it was impossible to evacuate.
Luhansk regional military administrator Serhiy Haidai said heavy artillery fire set seven residential buildings on fire and targeted the sports complex where the nation’s Olympic team trains.
Haidai later told Ukrainian television that Russians took control of the city after “leveling everything to the ground,” so his forces retreated to regroup and keep on fighting.
In the meantime, Denys prokopenko (commander of the Azov regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard) said that Russia was dropping bomber-buster missiles at the Azovstal steel facility where Prokopenko was hiding out.
This sprawling complex contains many tunnels that provide shelter for both civilians and fighters. This is thought to be the only major resistance area in the destroyed city.
Lviv, which is located close to the Polish frontier was struck by missiles. At least seven people died in the attack. Lviv has also been reported as a safe haven for civilians seeking refuge from the violence elsewhere. To the Kremlin’s increasing anger, Lviv has also become a major gateway for NATO-supplied weapons.
The attack on Lviv hit three military infrastructure facilities and an auto shop, according to the region’s governor, Maksym Kozytskyy. According to him, among the injured was a child.
The Mayor Andriy Sdovyi stated that the hotel in Lviv, which housed Ukrainians fleeing the violence elsewhere in the country, was also severely damaged. It has witnessed an increase in the number of people living there, including mothers and young children fleeing war-related traumas.
“The nightmare of war has caught up with us even in Lviv,” said Lyudmila Turchak, who fled with two children from the eastern city of Kharkiv. “There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”
Lviv is the largest city in Ukraine and an important transportation hub. It’s located about 80 km (50 miles), from Poland, which is a NATO member.
Russia strongly condemned the flow of Western arms to Ukraine, warning that it could lead to serious consequences. Russian media anchors claim that Western aid amounts to direct Western involvement in fighting Russia.
Residents say that a powerful explosion rocked Vasylkiv also, which is a small town to the south of Kyiv’s capital. Vasylkiv has an Air Base. At the time, it was not clear exactly what caused the blast.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was hit by shelling that killed at least three people, according to Associated Press journalists on the scene. A woman appeared to have been going outside to get water from the rain when she was one of the victims. A water canister was with her and an umbrella were found by her side.
Analysts in military intelligence claim that Russia had increased strikes against weapons factories, railways, and other infrastructure to prepare for the assault on Donbass.
Moscow claims that it has struck more than twenty military targets in Eastern and Central Ukraine over the course of the day. This includes ammunition depots as well command headquarters and troops, vehicles, and troop groups.
According to the company, its artillery also hit 315 more targets in Ukraine and warplanes launched 108 attacks on military and troop equipment. These claims were not independently confirmed.
Gen. Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, told Sky News that Russia was waging a “softening-up” campaign ahead of the Donbas offensive.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said there are now 76 Russian combat units, known as battalion tactical groups, in eastern and southern Ukraine, up from 65 last week.
Based on the Pentagon’s estimate at the outset of war, which was 700-800 soldiers in a typical unit, this could be roughly 50,000-60,000 troops. But, it is difficult to know the exact numbers as the fighting has begun.
Officials also stated that the initial shipment of weapons to Ukraine was made by four U.S. cargo planes arriving in Europe Sunday. This is part of an $800 million deal announced last week by Washington. The training of Ukrainian personnel to use U.S.155 mm howitzers is expected to start in the following days.
Mariupol is being captured, where Ukraine believes 21,000 have been killed. This capture would not only deprive Ukraine a crucial port, but also complete a land link between Russia and Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine in 2014.
According to the U.S. defense officials, if Russian forces take full control over Mariupol it could allow for nearly 12 battalion tactical units to be used elsewhere in Donbas.
This report was contributed by Nico Maounis, Philip Crowther, Adam Schreck, Vasylkiv and Robert Burns, Associated Press reporters.
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