Russia beefs up firepower ahead of looming offensive in eastern Ukraine

Emergency workers on Saturday carried debris from a multi-storey building destroyed in a Russian air raid at the beginning of the war in Borodyanka, close to Kyiv.

Russia’s military is lining up more firepower ahead of an expected showdown in eastern Ukraine - one that could become a decisive period in a war that has flattened cities and killed untold thousands.

Experts say a full-scale offensive in the east could start within days, though questions remained about the ability of Russia’s depleted and demoralised forces to conquer much ground.On Sunday, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said Russia’s armed forces are seeking to boost troop numbers with personnel who had been discharged from military service from 2012 onwards.

In an intelligence update on Twitter, the ministry said Moscow's efforts to offset mounting losses also include trying to recruit from Trans-Dniester, a breakaway region in Moldova that borders Ukraine.

Ukraine has the bulk of its military forces in the east: estimates vary, but they are believed to number in the tens of thousands.

Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and control parts of the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, its troops have bombarded government-held territory. The anticipated offensive in the east and south could end up excising a vast swath of land from Ukraine.

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On Sunday, Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the northeast and sent reinforcements toward Izyum to the southeast in attempts to break Ukraine’s defences, the Ukrainian military command said. The Russians also kept up their siege of Mariupol, a key southern port that has been under attack and surrounded for nearly one-and-a-half months.

Newly released Maxar satellite imagery collected on Friday showed an 8-mile (13-kilometre) convoy of military vehicles headed south to the Donbas region through the Ukrainian town of Velykyi Burluk.

A convoy of military vehicles were captured headed south to the Donbas region on Friday/

His address came as civilians continued to flee eastern parts of the country before an expected onslaught and firefighters searched for survivors in a northern town no longer occupied by Russian forces.

Several European leaders have made efforts to show solidarity with the battle-scarred nation. President Zelenskyy thanked the leaders of Britain and Austria for their visits Saturday to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and pledges of further support.

He also thanked the European Commission president and Canada’s prime minister for a global fundraising event that brought in more than €10 billion (£8 billion) for Ukrainians who have fled their homes.

President Zelenskyy repeated his call for a complete embargo on Russian oil and gas, which he called the sources of Russia’s “self-confidence and impunity".

Boris Johnson paid a visit to President Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Saturday.

Civilians were evacuating eastern Ukraine following a missile strike on Friday that killed at least 52 people and wounded more than 100 at a train station where thousands clamoured to leave. Ukrainian authorities have called on civilians to get out ahead of an imminent, stepped-up offensive by Russian forces in the east. With trains not running out of Kramatorsk on Saturday, panicked residents boarded buses or looked for other ways to leave, fearing the kind of unrelenting assaults and occupations by Russian invaders that brought food shortages, demolished buildings and death to other cities.

President Zelenskyy called the train station attack the latest example of war crimes by Russian forces and said it should motivate the West to do more to help his country defend itself. Russia denied responsibility and accused Ukraine’s military of firing on the station to turn blame for civilian casualties on Moscow. A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman detailed the missile’s trajectory and Ukrainian troop positions to bolster the argument.

Western experts and Ukrainian authorities insisted that Russia attacked the station. Remnants of the rocket had the words “for the children” in Russian painted on it. The phrasing seemed to suggest the missile was sent to avenge the loss or subjugation of children, although its exact meaning remained unclear.

Ukrainian servicemen stand next to a fragment of a Tochka-U missile with a writing in Russian "for children". Credit: AP

Ukrainian authorities have worked to identify victims and document possible war crimes in the north. The mayor of Bucha, a town near Kyiv where graphic evidence of civilian slayings emerged after Russian forces withdrew, said search teams were still finding bodies of people shot at close range in yards, parks and city squares. Ukrainian and Western officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of committing atrocities. A total of 176 children have been killed, while 324 more have been wounded, the prosecutor general’s Office said on Saturday. In an interview with The Associated Press inside his heavily guarded presidential office complex, Zelenskyy said he is committed to negotiating a diplomatic end to the war even though Russia has “tortured” Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western powers almost daily to send more arms and further punish Moscow with sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from the global financial system and a total EU embargo on Russian gas and oil. British prime minister Boris Johnson’s visit came a day after the UK pledged an additional £100 million in high-grade military equipment. Mr Johnson also confirmed further economic support, guaranteeing an additional $500 million (£384 million) in World Bank lending to Ukraine, taking Britain’s total loan guarantee to up to around £76.8 million. In the interview with AP, President Zelenskyy noted the increased support but expressed frustration when asked if weapons and equipment Ukraine has received from the West is sufficient to shift the war’s outcome. “Not yet,” he said, switching to English for emphasis. “Of course it’s not enough.”