Heavy fighting rages near Kyiv as Russia appears to regroup

Heavy fighting has raged on the outskirts of Kyiv and other zones overnight amid indications the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as cover while regrouping and resupplying its forces and redeploying them for a stepped-up offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an early morning video address that Ukraine is seeing “a buildup of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas, and we are preparing for that.”

Meanwhile, a convoy of buses headed to Mariupol in another bid to evacuate people from the besieged port city after the Russian military agreed to a limited cease-fire in the area.

And a new round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting was scheduled for Friday and the Ukrainian nuclear operator company said Russian troops were leaving the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

A soldier walks amid the destruction caused after shelling of a shopping centre in Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP)

Mariupol population cut by three-quarters

The Red Cross said its teams were headed for Mariupol with medical supplies and other relief and hoped to take civilians out of the beleaguered city. Tens of thousands have managed to get out in the past few weeks by way of humanitarian corridors, reducing the city’s population from a pre-war 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 as of last week, but other efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.

At the same time, Russian forces shelled suburbs of Kyiv that Ukraine recently retook control of, a regional official said, two days after the Kremlin announced it would significantly scale back operations near both the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”

Britain’s Defence Ministry also reported “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv. The area’s governor, Viacheslav Chaus, said Russian troops were on the move but may not be withdrawing.

Russia’s Defence Ministry also reported new strikes on Ukrainian fuel stores late Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said there were artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.

Despite the fighting raging in those areas, the Russian military said it committed to a cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia.

Maria Pavlovych weeps as she remembers her 25-year-old soldier son, Roman Pavlovych, who was killed near the besieged city of Mariupol, in his bedroom, in Hordynia village, western Ukraine, Friday, March 25, 2022. The Pavlovych family knows a second front line in Russia's war runs through the farmland here in western Ukraine, far from the daily resistance against the invasion. It is an uphill battle for farmers to feed not only their country but the world.

Mother’s tears amid ongoing onslaught on Ukraine

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses would be sent to collect civilians who have suffered some of the worst privations of the war.

Food, water and medical supplies have all run low during a weekslong blockade and bombardment of the city. Civilians who have managed to leave have typically done so using private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles left in the city has dwindled and fuel is low.

“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place,” the Red Cross said in a statement.

Residents evacuated from Irpin arrive at an assistance center on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP)

“The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”

As the new evacuation attempt was announced, evidence emerged that a Red Cross warehouse in the city had been struck earlier this month amid intense Russian shelling.

In satellite pictures from Planet Labs PBC, holes can be seen in the roof, along with a painted red cross on a white background. The aid organisation said no staff have been at the site since March 15.

Russian troops leave Chernobyl

Meanwhile, Russian troops were leaving the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and heading towards Ukraine’s border with Belarus nuclear operator Energoatom said.

The Russian military was also preparing to leave Slavutych, a nearby city where power plant workers live, the company said.

Energoatom also said reports were confirmed that the Russians dug trenches in the Red Forest, the 10sq km area surrounding the Chernobyl plant within the exclusion one, and received “significant doses of radiation”.

A man walks past a shelter covering the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Thursday, April 15, 2021.
A man walks past a shelter covering the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. ((AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky))

The Russian troops “panicked at the first sign of illness,” which “showed up very quickly,” and began to prepare to leave, the operator said. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.

Energoatom said the Russians had signed a document confirming the handover of the Chernobyl plant and stating that the plant’s administration doesn’t have any complaints about the Russian troops who were “guarding” the facility.

“It turns out that the occupiers ‘guarded’ the station for more than five weeks, and even so well that there are no complaints,” Energoatom said in a statement on Telegram.

An operator's arm-chair covered with plastic sits in an empty control room of the 3rd reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 20, 2018
An operator’s armchair covered with plastic sits in an empty control room of the third reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in 2018. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Talks to resume on Friday

Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, six weeks into a bloody war that has seen thousands die and a staggering 4 million Ukrainians flee the country.

But there seemed little faith that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon, particularly after the Russian military’s attacks on places where it had offered to dial back.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance intelligence indicates that Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead repositioning and redeploying forces to join attacks in the Donbas.

“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Mr Stoltenberg said, adding that Russia “is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region.”

At the same time, he said, pressure is being kept up on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering.”

In this satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC, an International Committee of the Red Cross warehouse is seen with apparent damage from shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine. (AP)

The Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. In the past few days, the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said that its “main goal” now is gaining control of the Donbas, which consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.

The top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, issued an order to set up a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news agencies, in a sign of Russian intent to hold and administer the city.

In the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media that Russian forces shelled Irpin and Makariv and that there were battles around Hostomel. Pavliuk said there were Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals around the suburb of Brovary to the east.

“Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units,” Britain’s Defence Ministry said.

“Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”

Territorial Defence of the Armed Forces, 21-year-olds Svitlana, right, and Myroslava, pose for a photograph, in Lviv, western Ukraine. (AP)

As Western officials search for clues about what Russia’s next move might be, a top British intelligence official said demoralised Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.

In a speech in Australia, Jeremy Fleming said Russian President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion.

Although Mr Putin’s advisers appear to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” said Mr Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency.

US intelligence officials have similarly concluded that Mr Putin is being misinformed by advisers too scared to give honest evaluations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the US is wrong and that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon possesses the real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”

“They don’t understand President Putin, they don’t understand the mechanism of decision-making, they don’t understand the way we work,” Mr Peskov said.

In other developments, Mr Putin authorised drafting 134,500 new conscripts starting April 1. The draft is a routine event but comes amid concerns that some draftees could be deployed to Ukraine.

Mariya, a local resident, looks for personal items in the rubble of her house, destroyed during fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the village of Yasnohorodka, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP)

Mr Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu have given assurances that conscripts will not take part in the war in Ukraine. Earlier this month, however, the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts ended up in Ukraine and were captured there.

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