Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday lauded a brigade accused by Ukraine of committing atrocities near the capital Kyiv as his forces pounded targets across the country, killing at least seven people in the western city of Lviv.
The air strikes in Lviv came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of wanting to “destroy” the entire eastern region of Donbas where Russian forces were massing for an expected all-out assault.
Despite widespread condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin appeared to double down on Monday.
He signed an official decree bestowing the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade the title of “Guards” for defending the “Motherland and state interests” and praised the “mass heroism and valour, tenacity and courage” of its members.
The Ukrainian defence ministry has accused the same outfit of committing war crimes while occupying the suburb of Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, where residents were shot dead, some with their hands bound.
The European Union condemned Russia’s “indiscriminate” bombing of Ukrainian civilians following the strikes on Lviv.
Its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pointed to “particularly heavy attacks” in eastern and southern Ukraine and an offensive against second city Kharkiv, where officials said Russian shelling killed three people.
“Attacks on Lviv and other cities in western Ukraine show that no part of the country is spared from the Kremlin’s senseless onslaught,” Borrell added.
Seeking to strengthen ties and accelerate admission to the 27-nation bloc, President Zelensky said Ukraine hoped to receive EU candidate country status within weeks.
On Monday, he handed the EU’s envoy to Kyiv, Matti Maasikas, a two-volume response to a membership questionnaire brought by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in March.
“We will receive support for this work, become a candidate for admission, and then the next final stage will begin,” Zelensky told Maasikas, in a video of the meeting on social media.
“Our people… mentally have been in Europe for a long time,” he added.
– No safe places –
Russia’s defence ministry on Monday said it had hit 16 military targets at various locations across Ukraine.
Among the targets was a depot near Lviv that Moscow said held weapons recently delivered to Ukraine from the United States and European countries.
Following the attack on Lviv, black smoke billowed from the gutted roof of a car repair shop in the northwest of the city as air raid sirens wailed.
“Fires were set off as a result of the strikes. They are still being put out. The facilities were severely damaged,” Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said on social media.
Lviv has largely been spared the Russian bombardment that has rained down on other parts of the country since Russia invaded on February 24.
The city and its surroundings have instead become a relatively safe haven for those seeking to escape the fighting further east.
“Today we understood clearly that we don’t have any safe places in Ukraine. It’s very dangerous,” a bank employee who gave her name as Natalia told AFP after the strikes.
– Prisoner swap –
In the south, Russia continued its push to capture the besieged port city of Mariupol where the last remaining Ukrainian forces prepared for a final stand.
Ukraine has pledged to fight on and defend the strategic city, defying a Russian ultimatum for remaining fighters inside the encircled Azovstal steel plant to lay down their arms and surrender.
Russian state TV on Monday broadcast a video of what it described as “Britons” captured fighting for Ukraine and demanding that Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiate their release.
The two haggard-looking men asked to be exchanged for Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian tycoon close to President Vladimir Putin, who was recently arrested in the pro-Western country.
Ukraine then aired its own video featuring Medvedchuk calling for his exchange in return for an evacuation of civilians and troops from Mariupol.
Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on February 24.
Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to have a land bridge between the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and the two Moscow-backed separatist statelets in Ukraine’s east.
– ‘They have to be pushed back’ –
In the east, Ukrainian authorities urged people in Donbas to move west to escape a large-scale Russian offensive to capture its composite regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
“Russian troops are preparing for an offensive operation in the east of our country in the near future. They want to literally finish off and destroy Donbas,” Zelensky said.
Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday said Monday that Russian troops had captured the nearby town of Kreminna in a “major attack” overnight.
“The Russian army has already entered there, with a huge amount of military hardware… Our defenders have retreated to new positions,” Gaiday said in a statement on social media.
Four civilians had died as they tried to flee Kreminna, he added.
Ukraine’s security and defence council secretary Oleksiy Danilov said the attack had been part of a general Russian push against Ukraine’s defences.
“Fortunately, our military is holding on,” he added.
Four other civilians died in Russian bombing in Donetsk, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Heavy bouts of shelling resumed in the country’s second city of Kharkiv Monday morning, according to an AFP reporter on the ground, killing at least three people.
It came a day after another five were killed and 20 wounded during a string of strikes in the city just 21 kilometres (13 miles) from the Russian border.
On the edge of Kharkiv over the weekend, Ukrainian forces huddled in fortified positions surrounded by earth blemished with craters where they stared down the Russian lines.
“The longer they stay in one place, the more they entrench, and the harder it will be to knock them out,” a sergeant using the call sign Oreshek told AFP.
“They have to be pushed back.”
Ukraine officials also said on Monday they were halting the evacuation of civilians from frontline towns and cities in the east for a second day, accusing Russian forces of having blocked and shelled escape routes.