Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that an attack from Russian forces in the east is looming. But he said Ukrainian troops are ready.
“Russian troops will move to even larger operations in the east of our state. They can use even more missiles against us, even more air bombs,” Zelenskyy said in a televised address late Sunday. “But we are preparing for their actions. We will respond. We will be even more active in providing Ukraine with weapons. We will be more active in the international arena. We will be even more active in the information field.”
After Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the north, east and south on Feb. 24, they quickly reached the outskirts of Kyiv, but ultimately failed to seize the Ukrainian capital and other major cities in the north. Russian forces were met with strong resistance from Ukrainian troops, despite weeks of relentless bombardment that decimated entire neighborhoods and claimed civilian lives.
The Russian military announced on March 29 it would scale down activities in the north around Kyiv and Chernihiv and instead focus its efforts on the “liberation” of the contested Donbas region in the east, which is home to a mostly Russian-speaking population. Russia-backed separatist forces have controlled two breakaway republics of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhanks oblasts in Donbas since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The Russian troops that have retreated from northern and northeastern Ukraine in recent days are now resting and resupplying in neighboring Belarus and Russia, according to observers, who noted it could take weeks before those troops are redployed for a fresh attack in the east.
“At least some of these forces will be transferred to East Ukraine to fight in the Donbas,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update on April 8. “Many of these forces will require significant replenishment before being ready to deploy further east with any mass redeployment from the north likely to take at least a week minimum.”
Nevertheless, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that “this is a crucial phase of the war.”
“In the coming weeks, we expect a further Russian push in eastern and southern Ukraine to try to take the entire Donbas and to create a land bridge to occupied Crimea,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference on April 5.
Satellite images collected on April 8 by Maxar Technologies show a large military convoy of hundreds of vehicles, including tanks, that extends for at least 8 miles, moving south through the eastern Ukrainian town of Velykyi Burluk, about 55 miles east of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and some 65 miles from the border with Russia. Ukrainian authorities have warned citizens in the east that this is their last chance to flee, as Russian forces are expected to push south from Kharkiv and north from Donetsk in an attempt to encircle the battle-hardened Ukrainain troops in Donbas.
In an interview with The Associated Press published Saturday, Zelenskyy said his country holds a strong position in the east and at the negotiation table because it maintains control of the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been under Russian bombardment for more than a month. Although Russian forces have failed to capture the strategic port to secure a coastal corridor to Crimea, artillery and air raids have largely reduced Mariupol to rubble and killed thousands of residents, according to local officials.
“Mariupol is the heart of this war today,” Zelenskyy told the AP. “The stronger our position in Mariupol, the stronger our position in the east of the country.”
In his address on Sunday night, Zelenskyy said this coming “week will be no less important than” the previous ones.
“It will be just as tense and even more responsible. Russia will be even more afraid. Afraid to lose,” he said. “I will continue to address the parliaments and nations of the world. We will meet our partners, leaders of other states in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. We will attract even more funds and resources to help Ukraine.