KYIV, Ukraine – The United States accused Russia on Thursday, April 28, of planning to stage fake independence votes to justify its conquest of territory in Ukraine, as Russian forces stepped up their assault on the east.
Russia is pushing an attack to grab two eastern provinces more than two months after an invasion that has leveled towns but failed to capture the capital Kyiv. The West regards the conflict as a key turning point in the war.
Even though Russian soldiers were forced out of northern Ukraine last month, they remain entrenched in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have held some territory since 2014, as well as a slice of the south that they took in March.
The US mission to the OSCE security body said the Kremlin might attempt “sham referenda” in southern and eastern areas it had captured since the February 24 invasion, using “a well-worn playbook that steals from history’s darkest chapters”.
“These falsified, illegitimate referenda will undoubtedly be accompanied by a wave of abuses against those who seek to oppose or undermine Moscow’s plans,” the US mission said.
“The international community must make clear that any such referendum will never be recognized as legitimate.”
Ukraine reported explosions overnight in the southern city of Kherson, which is Russia’s only regional capital since the invasion. Russian forces fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse pro-Ukrainian demonstrators on Wednesday, and are currently bombarding the entire surrounding region and targeting Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, according to Ukrainian officials.
On Thursday, a representative of a self-styled pro-Russian “military-civilian committee” in Kherson told Russian state media that the region will begin utilizing Russia’s rouble currency on May 1.
Russia is also ratcheting up its primary military attack in Ukraine’s east, where Moscow now seeks to conquer all of two regions partially controlled by rebels, according to Ukraine’s general command.
“The enemy’s offensive operation is picking up speed. “The Russian occupiers are firing heavily in nearly every direction,” the report stated.
Russia’s major onslaught was spotted in the villages of Slobozhanske and Donets, along a crucial frontline route connecting Ukraine’s second-biggest city Kharkiv to the Russian-occupied city of Izyum. Russian soldiers were stepping up attacks from Izyum, according to the regional governor of Kharkiv, but Ukrainian troops were maintaining their ground.
Russian shelling on the town of Pokotilovka on Thursday killed two people and injured seven, according to Kharkiv regional prosecutors. The report could not be independently verified by Reuters. Russia denies that people are being targeted.
Russia to NATO: ‘Don’t test our patience’
According to the White House, US President Joe Biden will make statements in support of Ukrainians on Thursday.
As the battle in the east has intensified, Western nations have increased military sales to Ukraine. More than 40 countries gathered this week at a US airbase in Germany to commit to supplying heavy weapons like artillery for what is likely to be a massive clash between opposing forces on the broad, flat territory.
Washington now hopes that Ukrainian forces can not only stop Russia’s eastward drive but also degrade its military so that it can no longer threaten its neighbors. Russia claims NATO is waging a “proxy war” against it and has threatened specific responses many times this week.
Russia has also reported a series of Ukrainian strikes on Russian border regions and has warned that such actions might lead to a severe escalation.
Ukraine has denied culpability but claims the events are retaliation, while Russia has reacted angrily to assertions from NATO member Britain that it is permissible for Ukraine to attack Russian logistics.
“In the West, they are openly calling on Kyiv to attack Russia including with the use of weapons received from NATO countries,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow.
“I don’t advise you to test our patience further.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is frantically striving to solidify Russian control over seized land, serving as a “cancerous growth” inside Ukraine, according to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
When Russian soldiers were forced out of Kyiv last month, they left behind demolished suburbs littered with the death of hundreds of killed civilians, which Western governments have described as strong proof of war crimes.
Without providing evidence, Moscow claims that such signals of alleged crimes are phony.
“I imagine my family in one of those homes, now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running away in panic, part of the family eventually killed,” Guterres told reporters in Borodyanka, surrounded by scorched, windowless apartment blocks.
“Innocent civilians were living in these buildings, they were paying the highest price for a war which they have not contributed to at all.”
On Wednesday, Guterres met with Putin in Moscow to discuss a failed peace mission. The UN chief’s offer to assist in the evacuation of Mariupol, the beleaguered port that has seen the war’s fiercest combat and biggest humanitarian disaster, was turned down by Russia.
The Ukrainian military is still barricaded inside a massive steel plant in Mariupol. Last week, Putin declared victory in the city by blockading the steel mills. According to Kyiv, 100,000 residents are still stranded in the wreckage of the city.
“The city is not theirs as long as we’re here and holding the defense,” Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, told Reuters via a video connection from a site beneath the massive plant.
Since Russia initiated its “special military operation” in Ukraine with the claimed goal of disarming its neighbor and defeating nationalists, almost 5 million people have fled to other countries. The West dismisses this as a phony excuse for a land grab.