(CN) — After nearly two months of bloodshed and destruction, the war in Ukraine saw further escalation Friday as Russia said it wanted to seize Ukrainian territories on the Black Sea to connect Crimea with Russian-speaking parts of Moldova.
The war is intensifying as Russia prepares to further ramp up its offensive in eastern Ukraine and U.S. President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of heavy arms to bolster Kyiv’s ability to fend off the Russian assault in the Donbas region.
Russia faced new accusations of war crimes with reports emerging of mass graves in Mariupol, the devastated southeastern port that is now firmly in Russian hands. Media reported that satellite photographs detected what appeared to be rows upon rows of freshly dug mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
“The graves have been dug up and corpses are still being dumped there,” said Petro Andryushenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor, who's no longer in the city. The Associated Press reported that Andryushenko said the mass graves could hold 9,000 bodies or more.
In Mariupol, Russia continued a blockade of about 1,500 Ukrainian troops holding out inside a massive bunker system built as a nuclear bomb shelter under a steelworks plant. The facility continued to be bombed even though hundreds of civilians may be sheltering inside the bunkers too.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the capture of Mariupol, an affirmation rejected by the U.S.
Still, video and testimony from Russian sources in Mariupol show the city has come under the control of Moscow. For example, the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a self-declared pro-Russian independent state of eastern Ukraine, was raised at a television tower over the city and Russian troops are seen moving without resistance in the city.
Russia’s declaration on Friday about wanting to seize southern Ukraine confirmed fears that Putin aims to partition Ukraine and has designs to expand Russia’s borders into regions it claims as part of a greater Russia. Since Putin launched the Ukraine invasion on Feb. 24, fears have spread about Russia seeking to reconstitute the old Russian empire and enlarge its boundaries.
Putin’s invasion has prompted NATO to send thousands of additional troops into Eastern and Central Europe and spurred the neutral nations of Finland and Sweden into taking steps to join NATO.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian troops have occupied the eastern part of Moldova, where there is a large Russian-speaking population. This breakaway region is known as Transnistria. Moldova is on the path toward membership in the European Union.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population,” said Rustam Minnekaev, a top Russian commander, as reported by Interfax, a Russian state news agency.
Minnekaev said Russia wants to “establish full control” over Donbas and southern Ukraine and form a corridor between Russia and Transnistria.
Such a plan would mean seizing the vital and historic Black Sea port city of Odessa. Much of Ukraine’s exports, including vast amounts of grains and fertilizer, go through Odessa. Until now, Russia has not tried to seize Odessa, but its warships have blocked the port, poised for an amphibious assault.
In eastern Ukraine, the fighting continued to rage on Friday with Russia using artillery to pummel Ukrainian defenses. Since suffering heavy losses in an aborted attempt to seize the capital Kyiv with grounds troops, Russia has turned its focus on capturing Donbas. It is now relying much more on heavy shelling and aerial bombing, apparently to make it easier for the advance of ground troops. The decisive battle over Donbas began Monday night.
Russia is amassing more troops and weapons for a major offensive against Ukrainian forces in Donbas, which U.S. intelligence says could come within days. Between 40,000 and 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers are positioned there and they are in danger of being encircled. Russian forces were making small advances and Ukraine claimed to be on the counterattack in some places.
To help in the defense and give Ukraine a chance to mount its own offensive, the West is stepping up its arms shipments.
“We’re in a critical window of time when [the Russians] are going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” Biden said on Thursday in announcing an additional $800 million in arms for Ukraine.
He said the U.S. arms delivery will include 72 howitzers, 144,000 artillery rounds and more than 120 drones, the kinds of weapons that would be useful in the Donbas battle where the combat is taking place in mostly open fields. The new drones will include Phoenix Ghost drones, which are considered “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones because they are designed to be used as guided bombs.
“We won’t always be able to advertise everything that our partners are doing to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom,” Biden said, and he paraphrased a famous quote of Theodore Roosevelt: “Sometimes we will speak softly and carry a large Javelin because we’re sending a lot of those in as well.” He was referring to the American-made Javelin anti-tank missile.
In addition, Ukrainian forces are being trained by U.S. and British officers on how to use the weapons being shipped to Ukraine.
“This help is needed today more than ever! It saves the lives of our defenders of democracy and freedom and brings us closer to restoring peace in Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement on social media.
The new weapons bring Washington’s total military support since the start of the war to more than $3 billion. In addition, Congress passed a $13.6 billion package of military and humanitarian aid in March. On Thursday, Biden also announced another $500 million to help Ukraine economically and a ban on Russian-flagged ships from entering American ports.
There are some doubts, though, about how well the arms shipments are working. There are reports of Ukrainians complaining about supplies not reaching the front line fast enough. There are also growing concerns in Europe over the depletion of weapons stockpiles in Germany and elsewhere.
The state of the battle over Donbas remains uncertain.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Donbas region of Luhansk, said Ukrainian forces were repelling the Russian attacks and he claimed Russia was suffering heavy losses.
He accused Russian forces of destroying civilian infrastructure, looting, stopping people from evacuating and executing civilians.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain in the war zone in Donbas, where street fighting is taking place in villages, towns and cities. Water, electricity, food, medicine and other basic necessities are lacking in many places.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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