Evidence of atrocities against Ukrainian civilians were apparent on Thursday, as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres toured the region outside the capital of Kyiv and visited mass gravesites.
The Russian aggression in Ukraine, which Canada’s House of Commons unanimously voted to recognize as an act of genocide, has refocused on the Donbas after retreating from the Kyiv region following fierce Ukrainian resistance.
The Donbas is a mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that has been partly held by Kremlin-backed rebels since 2014.
In a reminder of the horrific toll the war has taken since it began on Feb. 24, Guterres visited towns including Bucha, where evidence of mass killings was found.
“Civilians always pay the highest price,” Guterres said as he visited the bombed-out suburb of Irpin. “And this is something everyone should remember, everywhere in the world. Wherever there is a war the highest price is paid by civilians.”
Russia’s offensive picks up momentum
Ukrainian officials said on Thursday that Russia’s offensive has picked up momentum in the east, with several towns coming under intense attack as Moscow’s forces attempt to surround Ukrainian troops.
The fighting gathered pace after Russia suddenly cut off natural gas to two NATO nations on Wednesday, in what was seen as a bid to punish and divide the West over its support for Ukraine ahead of the potentially pivotal battle in the eastern industrial region of the Donbas.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were “exerting intense fire” in several places as they pushed on with the second phase of their invasion. The most intensive action was around Donetsk and close to Kharkiv, which lies outside the Donbas but is seen as key to Russia’s apparent bid to encircle Ukrainian troops there.
Tatiana Pirogova spoke of the intense fear of living under constant bombardment.
“It’s not just scary. It’s when your stomach contracts from pain,” the Kharkiv resident said. “When they shoot during the day, it’s still OK, but when the evening comes, I can’t describe how scary it is.”
The General Staff said that over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian forces have repelled six attacks in the Donbas, control of which is now Moscow’s primary focus ever since its initial offensive faltered and failed to take the Ukrainian capital.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russian army shelled the residential area in his region “29 times by aircrafts, multiple rocket launches, tube artillery and mortars.”
Images reveal attacks at Mariupol steel plant
In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed evidence of intensifying Russian fire targeting a steel mill in recent days.
The images show how concentrated attacks have greatly damaged a central facility at the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the key battleground city.
An estimated 1,000 civilians are sheltering along with about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters in the steelworks, a massive Soviet-era complex with a warren of underground facilities built to withstand airstrikes.
The UN said on Wednesday that its humanitarian office is mobilizing a team to co-ordinate the complex evacuation of civilians from the besieged steel plant with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in principle to UN and ICRC participation in the evacuation from the plant during talks earlier this week.
UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said the UN is trying to translate the Guterres-Putin agreement in principle “into an agreement in detail and an agreement on the ground.”
Blasts signal possible Ukrainian counterattack
Meanwhile, in what could be a further Ukrainian counterattack, a series of explosions boomed near a television tower late Wednesday in southern Ukraine’s Kherson, which has been occupied by Russian forces since early in the war.
The blasts at least temporarily knocked Russian channels off the air, Ukrainian and Russian news organizations reported.
Ukraine has urged its allies to send even more military equipment so it can continue its fight.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that “up to date, NATO allies have pledged and provided at least eight billion U.S. dollars in military support to Ukraine. And we see the importance of further stepping up our support to Ukraine.”
While Russia’s initial blitz was stunted — and it suffered the humiliating loss of a massive warship — Britain’s Defence Ministry said the Russian navy still has the ability to strike coastal targets in Ukraine.
In an intelligence briefing posted Thursday morning, the ministry says that about 20 Russia naval vessels, including submarines, are currently operating in the Black Sea zone.
But the ministry says Russia isn’t able to replace the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, which sank earlier this month in the Black Sea, because the Bosporus Strait remains closed to all non-Turkish warships. Russia also lost the landing ship Saratov, which was destroyed by explosions and fire on March 24.