Civilians flee eastern Ukraine ahead of new Russian offensive | Ukraine

Civilians have fled eastern Ukraine in advance of a widely forecast attack and Russian forces closed in on the ruins of the southern city of Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin insisted Moscow’s invasion would achieve what he called its “noble” aims.

Ukrainian forces were preparing on Tuesday for a new Russian offensive in the east of the country, with the governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Gaidai, urging residents to evacuate as soon as possible using agreed humanitarian corridors.

“It’s far more scary to remain and to burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” Gaidai said on social media. “Evacuate: with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point.”

Russian troops also continued to pound the Azovstal industrial district of Mariupol where Ukrainian marines were making a last stand in the defense of the strategic port, which has been largely reduced to rubble after six weeks of heavy bombardment.

Russia is believed to be trying to seize Mariupol to connect occupied Crimea with the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbas region, but Kyiv insisted its defense of the city was continuing.

“The connection with the units of the defense forces that heroically hold the city is stable and maintained,” Ukraine’s military command said, adding that Russian forces were targeting the town of Popasna, two hours’ drive west of Luhansk, and were also preparing an offensive in the direction of Kurakhove, near Donetsk.

Ukraine war map

The deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar said Kyiv was checking unconfirmed information that Russia may have used chemical weapons in the siege of Mariupol, whose mayor has said more than 10,000 civilians have died.

“There is a theory that these could be phosphorus munitions; official information will come later,” Malyar said. Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment but Moscow-backed separatist forces denied using chemical weapons.

Mariupol city council said the area where the poisonous substance had allegedly been used could not be examined because of enemy fire, adding that Ukrainian soldiers who had come into contact with it were being observed for possible symptoms.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said overnight that Russia could resort to chemical weapons and both the US and the UK said they were trying to verify the reports.

Zelenskiy on Tuesday also urged the EU to impose sanctions on all Russian banks and Russian oil, and to set firm deadlines for ending imports of Russian gas. “We cannot wait,” he told the Lithuanian parliament.

“We need powerful decisions. Only then will the Russian government understand they need to seek peace, that the war is turning into a catastrophe for them.”

While Russian troops have withdrawn from around Ukraine’s capital in the face of stiff resistance and apparent logistical problems, western officials and analysts say the invasion force is gearing up for a major offensive in the east.

“Fighting in eastern Ukraine will intensify over the next two to three weeks as Russia continues to refocus its efforts there,” Britain’s defense ministry said. “Russian attacks remain focused near Donetsk and Luhansk with further fighting around Kherson and Mykolaiv and a renewed push toward Kramatorsk.”

Vladimir Putin visits the Vostochny cosmodrome in far eastern Russia on Tuesday. Photograph: Evgeny Biyatov/Kremlin pool/Sputnik/EPA

Visiting the far east of Russia on Tuesday, Putin said the country’s military would “undoubtedly achieve” its goals in Ukraine, saying its objectives were “noble” and the operation was aimed at ensuring Russia’s security.

The Russian president said Moscow had no choice but to launch its attack on 24 February. “Its goals are absolutely clear and noble,” Putin said, adding that the main aim was to save people in Russian-controlled Donbas.

“On the one hand, we are helping and saving people, and on the other, we are simply taking measures to ensure the security of Russia itself,” Putin said. “It’s clear that we didn’t have a choice. It was the right decision.”

Touring the Vostochny cosmodrome 3,450 miles (5,550km) from Moscow with the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, Putin added that attempts to isolate Russia would fail, citing the success of the Soviet space program during the cold war.

“We don’t intend to be isolated,” Putin said. “It is impossible to severely isolate anyone in the modern world – especially such a vast country as Russia.” Belarus has said it has been unfairly labeled “an accomplice of the aggressor” in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion has so far driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including more than 4 million who have fled abroad. Russian forces have been accused of multiple atrocities including hundreds of civilian killings.

Unprecedented sanctions imposed by the west in response are likely to cause Russia’s economy to contract by more than 10% in 2022, the biggest fall in GDP since the years after following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, a former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, said on Tuesday.

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