KRAKOW, Poland — Ukrainian troops, emboldened by sophisticated weaponry and long-range artillery supplied by the West, went on the offensive against Russian forces in the northeast on Friday, trying to push them back from two key cities as the war plunged deeper into a crunchy, city -for-city-fight.
After weeks of intense fighting along a 300-mile front, neither side managed to make a major breakthrough, with one army taking a few villages in one day only to lose as many in the days that followed. In its latest attempt to retake territory, Ukraine’s military said “bitter battles” were being fought as it struggled to retake Russian-controlled areas around Kharkiv to the northeast and Izium to the east.
The heightened struggle came as the White House announced on Friday that President Biden would meet virtually on Sunday with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and leaders of the G7, which include Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. will meet states.
In addition, President Biden is sending a new $150 million security package to Ukraine, according to a government official, who says it will include 25,000 artillery shells, counter-artillery radars, jamming gear and other field equipment.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, indicated that leaders would gather as President Vladimir V Putin of Russia prepares to celebrate the annual Victory Day holiday on Monday with military parades and speeches aimed at remember the triumph of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.
The holiday has fueled fears in Ukraine and some western capitals that Mr Putin could use the opportunity to escalate his February 24 invasion after his initial attempt to route Ukraine’s military and overthrow the government , had failed.
“Although he expected to march through the streets of Kyiv, that’s not actually going to happen,” Ms Psaki said. She called the G7 meeting “an opportunity not only to show how united the West is in confronting President Putin’s aggression and invasion, but also to show that unity takes work.”
Ukraine on Friday urged civilians to prepare for heavier attacks ahead of Victory Day in Russia, warning them to avoid large gatherings and introducing new curfews from Ivano-Frankivsk in the west to Zaporizhia in the south-east.
Ukrainian police forces have also been put on heightened alert ahead of the holiday, which Russia is celebrating with military parades in Moscow and hundreds of other cities.
Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, warned civilians that gathering in crowded places could risk their lives.
“We all remember what happened at the Kramatorsk train station,” Mr Denysenko said on Telegram, referring to a devastating rocket attack in that eastern city last month that killed dozens of people as they crowded and tried to board train platforms , to flee invasion.
“Be vigilant,” said Mr. Denysenko. “That’s the most important.”
Luhansk regional governor in eastern Ukraine Sergei Haidai warned that Russian forces would be preparing for a “major offensive” against two eastern cities, Severodonetsk and Popsana, in the next few days. He attacked what he described as “persistent horror” in the region, where he said the latest Russian shelling killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes.
The pace of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine has increased in recent days as Moscow seeks to slow the flow of Western arms through the country. But as with so many aspects of the war, uncertainty about Putin’s intentions runs deep.
There is widespread speculation that he could use the upcoming holiday to turn what he calls a “military special operation” into an all-out war, justifying a mass mobilization of Russian troops and setting the stage for a broader, wide-ranging conflict. Kremlin officials have denied such plans. But they had also denied plans to invade Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have said military service in Russia could spark a backlash among its citizens, many of whom polls show still view the war as a distant conflict filtered through the convoluted and sometimes conflicting narratives of the state-controlled media will.
“General mobilization in Russia is beneficial for us,” said Oleksei Arestovych, an adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, in an interview on Ukrainian television this week. “It can lead to a revolution.”
Some Western analysts speculate that Mr Putin may instead be pointing to territory Moscow has already seized in eastern Ukraine to back up its false claims that Russia is liberating the region from the Nazis.
For its part, the Pentagon has avoided fueling speculation about Putin’s plans for Victory Day.
“What they want to do or say on Victory Day is really up to them,” said Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby. said Thursday. “I don’t think we have perfect intuition.”
Fears that Russia could step up its attack surfaced as the United Nations Security Council on Friday adopted a statement supporting UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ efforts to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the war.
The statement, initiated by Mexico and Norway, was the first measure regarding Ukraine that the Council had unanimously approved since the invasion began. Russia backed the statement, which did not label the conflict a “war,” a label banned by the Kremlin.
Mr Zelensky insisted on Friday that peace talks cannot resume until Russian forces withdraw to where they were before the invasion. However, he did not rule out the possibility of a negotiated solution.
“Not all bridges are destroyed,” he said remotely at a virtual event hosted by Chatham House, a British research organization.
Alexey Zaitsev, a spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry, said Friday that talks between Russia and Ukraine are “in a state of stagnation,” Russian state media reported.
Mr Zaitsev accused NATO countries of prolonging the war by supplying billions of dollars in arms to Ukraine, despite those countries urging Putin to withdraw his troops.
“This leads to escalation of hostilities, more destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties,” he said.
Mr Zelensky said Russian propagandists spent years fomenting “hatred” that drove Russian soldiers to “hunt down” civilians, demolish cities and commit the kind of atrocities committed in the besieged southern port of Mariupol be seen. Much of the city, once home to more than 400,000 people, has been leveled and has become a powerful symbol of the devastation Russia wreaked on Ukraine.
Mr Zelensky said Russia’s determination to destroy the last of the Ukrainian militants holed up with desperate civilians in bunkers under the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol only underscores the “cruelty” that defined the invasion.
“This is terrorism and hate,” he said.
About 50 women, children and the elderly trapped under the Azovstal facility in Mariupol were evacuated in a humanitarian convoy on Friday, according to a senior Ukrainian official and Russian state media. The official, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk, said the evacuation was “extremely slow” because Russian troops violated a ceasefire.
According to Mr. Guterres, with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross, almost 500 people have managed to leave the Azovstal plant, Mariupol and the surrounding areas in recent days.
As the fighting drags on, concerns grow that the war could exacerbate a global hunger crisis.
The United Nations said on Friday there was mounting evidence that Russian troops had looted tons of Ukrainian grain and destroyed grain stores, contributing to a disruption in exports that had already caused global prices to surge, with devastating consequences for poor countries.
At the same time, the organization’s anti-hunger agency, the World Food Programme, has called for the reopening of ports in the Odessa region of southern Ukraine so that food produced in the war-torn country can flow freely to the rest of the world. Ukraine, a leading grain producer, had stored about 14 million tons for export, but Russia’s blockade of Russian Black Sea ports has prevented distribution.
“Right now, Ukraine’s grain elevators are full,” said David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Program, while “44 million people around the world are marching towards starvation.”
Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht reported from Krakow, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was provided by Montreal’s Dan Bilefsky, Geneva’s Nick Cumming-Bruce, Eastham, Massachusetts’ Rick Gladstone, Washington’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs and New York’s Farnaz Fassihi.