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War in Ukraine builds toward big battle over Donbas

Fighting in Ukraine carried on for a 47th day on Monday with both sides preparing for a major battle over the eastern region of Donbas. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting over the port city of Mariupol.

(CN) — After 47 days of combat, the war in Ukraine is building toward a major battle over the eastern region of Donbas with both sides beefing up their arsenals and armies, leaving little hope that the fighting will end any time soon.

With the West stepping up arms shipments to Kyiv, Ukraine is preparing for a drawn-out war with Russia. A top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday told his compatriots to gird themselves for years of war.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer flew to Moscow on Monday and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nehammer’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, said the chancellor was going to tell Putin that he has “de facto lost the war morally,” according to the Guardian.

In a statement after the meeting, Nehammer said he told Putin that those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine would be prosecuted and that Western sanctions will increase as long as the war continues. He said Putin and he had a “direct, open and hard” conversation.

To reporters, Nehammer said he got “no positive impressions and promising prospects,” according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency.

“Putin has massively entered into the logic of war and acts accordingly,” Nehammer said.

Nehammer was the first European leader to visit Moscow since Putin launched the Ukraine invasion on Feb. 24. Austria is not part of NATO, making it a neutral nation in the NATO-Russia rivalry.

The Kremlin remains defiant over the war and Putin’s popularity has only grown at home since the invasion, according to Russian opinion polls. It did not immediately issue a statement about Nehammer's visit.

Fighting has continued to be fierce in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine with more reports of shelling on towns and cities in Ukraine and in eastern parts of Ukraine under the control of pro-Russian separatists.

Russian forces have made gains in seizing all of Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov in southeastern Ukraine.

On Monday, the 36th marine brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces issued a desperate message on Facebook saying they were surrounded and faced a “last battle.”

The brigade described how it has run out of water, food and ammunition and that many of its members have been killed. Those who can walk continue to fight, it said.

“Today will probably be the last battle, as the ammunition is running out,” it said. “It’s death for some of us, and captivity for the rest.”

On Monday, in a speech to the South Korean parliament, Zelenskyy said “tens of thousands” have been killed in Mariupol.

“The worst situation is in Mariupol,” he said. “Mariupol is destroyed. There are tens of thousands of dead. But even despite this, the Russians do not stop the offensive operation. They want to make Mariupol a demonstratively destroyed city.”

Since Russian forces withdrew from areas around Kyiv, the Russian army has shifted its attention to Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine that has been the theater of war for the past eight years following a pro-Russian separatist movement.

Fighting remains heavy in Donbas with devastating consequences.

On Friday, scores of civilians were killed and wounded after a missile struck a train station in Kramatorsk where thousands of people were waiting to be evacuated. Russia was blamed for the attack, but the Kremlin accused Ukraine of launching the missile, citing as proof that it was the kind of rocket used by Ukraine.

Western support for Ukraine continues to solidify and has only deepened in the past week as evidence of Russian war crimes mounts.

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Firefighters clear the debris and search for bodies under the rubble of a building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Monday, April 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to Kyiv where he promised more support, including armored vehicles and anti-tank missiles.

“I think that the Ukrainians have shown the courage of a lion, and you Volodymyr have given the roar of that lion,” he said. “The U.K. and others [will] supply the equipment, the technology, the know-how, the intelligence, so that Ukraine will never be invaded again. So Ukraine is so fortified and protected – so that Ukraine can never be bullied again. Never be blackmailed again. Never be threatened in the same way again.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, earlier said the bloc would strengthen its military support for Kyiv and added that Ukraine must be given the weapons it needs to win on the battlefield and establish peace in the country.
On Monday, EU diplomats showed up in Kyiv and raised the EU's flag in the center of the Ukrainian capital. The EU has promised to put Ukraine on the fast track toward membership in the union. In recent peace talks in Istanbul, Russia said it would not oppose Ukrainian membership in the EU as long as it stayed out of NATO. For years, Russia has said it was deeply concerned about NATO's expansion onto its borders and Putin cited Ukraine's efforts to join the anti-Russian military alliance as a central reason for the war.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Borrell’s statement about helping Ukraine win the war against Russia was a significant change in tone.

He said it “changes the rules of the game significantly” because the European Union has “never acted as a military organization at all.” He made his comments to Russia 24, a television channel, according to RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency.

There are clear signs that both sides are preparing for a protracted war.

On Monday, Ukrainian news agencies reported that the parliament in Kyiv will propose forcing Ukrainian males outside the country to return to fight or face up to 10 years in prison. Zelenskyy called a general mobilization shortly after Putin invaded and Ukrainian males between the age of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave. About 2,200 men eligible to fight have been arrested at Ukrainian borders for trying to flee.

There are reports that Russia too is rounding up men who would not typically be called upon to fight and relying on conscripts to do the fighting.

“Russian forces are implementing increasingly draconian measures to conscript previously ineligible personnel,” the Institute for the Study of War said in a report on Sunday. The think tank cited the Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate for its information about Russia allegedly conscripting people with childhood disabilities and “workers in protected industries.”

Oleksiy Arestovich, a top adviser to Zelenskyy, said the war with Russia could last until 2035 and told Ukrainians who don’t want to live in a long state of war to leave the country.

“I don’t know if five [years] will be needed, but we are guaranteed several military clashes by 2035,” he said in an interview, according to Ukrainian news outlets. “This means a clash every two, and possibly five years. And big clashes every seven to eight years.”

In the interview with Mark Feigin, an anti-Putin Russian human rights lawyer, Arestovich compared Ukraine’s future to that of Israel, which has been in conflict with neighboring Arab nations for decades.

“Those who are not ready for this, who are now screaming about how can they live here and raise children, they will need to go to some other country,” he said. “Here is a new Israel. Only the scale is steeper and scarier. My family is here and will remain here, and who is not ready – there is warm Spain, and many other countries. Go there if you are not ready.”

Months before Putin launched the invasion, Arestovich spoke about how Ukraine and Russia were bound to fight a major war.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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