The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has entered a new phase. After several days of preparations and warnings of a major Russian offensive in the east of the country, the authorities in the Lugansk region confirmed today that the Kremlin's attack "has already begun". A statement from the territory's military administration on Monday said.
"The enemy continues to carry out a large-scale armed aggression against our state. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are completing the formation of an offensive group in the Eastern Operation Zone", the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence made public on its Facebook page, in the same line in which President Zelensky had already warned that Moscow was "changing its strategy and strengthening its forces to put more pressure on the east". "They literally want to eliminate and destroy the Donbas," he warned on Monday.
Thus, 54 days after the outbreak of a conflict whose beginnings date back to 2014, international analysts believe that this new phase of the war will be marked by the location of the bulk of the Russian contingent ever closer to its own borders. A report published by the US daily The Wall Street Journal points to the possibility that, at this stage, the balance will tip towards Moscow. The mobilisation of Kremlin troops westwards will mean that the supply lines required will be much shorter than those used during the siege of Kiev.
"You can almost say we're going to see a whole new war," said Ben Hodges, a retired US general, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. A "big battle" that is likely to be more along the lines of the conventional model of confrontation than the one we have known to date. It will also be influenced by Russia's knowledge of Ukrainian territory, since the eastern regions - historically favourable to Moscow - have been home to hundreds of Kremlin military personnel in recent years.
The first major thrusts of this new Russian strategy have been directed against the city of Kharkov, which was already under attack before Moscow's turn, but which today alone reported six deaths. "In Kharkov, as a result of the shelling of residential areas, including the central part of the city, 24 people were injured, six were killed," Ukrainian sources told Interfax.
Meanwhile, Serhiy Gaidai, the regional governor of Lugansk, reported on Monday that Russian troops have taken control of Kreminna, a small town in the eastern province. Meanwhile, the siege continues in Mariupol. "The situation in the city has worsened. I call on the military-political leadership of the Russian Federation to open a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol to Berdyansk", Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk tweeted a day after Moscow's ultimatum for the surrender of the Ukrainian soldiers remaining in the city expired. But Russian troops appear to give no security guarantees for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to help evacuate the nearly 100,000 Ukrainian civilians trapped in the town.
Zelensky has called on his troops in Mariupol to "fight to the end", as the capture of the city would be a huge victory for Russia: the Kremlin would consolidate its control of the Sea of Azov, create a land corridor linking the Donbas with the Crimea and move ever closer to seizing the town of Odessa. The "pearl of the Black Sea".
Although the UN Office for Human Rights today confirmed the deaths of more than 2,000 civilians, including 169 children, and the number of wounded is close to 3,000, the military administration in the Lugansk region is not hopeful. According to the agency, the evacuation of civilians in this context is "impossible".
And in the midst of this scenario - where both governments seemed to have taken some steps towards understanding, and where, now, the intensification of the latest attacks in the south and east of Ukraine have once again distanced the possibilities of a ceasefire - Putin and Zelensky's intentions for dialogue seem to have cooled. Indeed, Mikhail Podoliak, Ukraine's chief peace negotiator, has estimated that his president will only agree to meet with his Russian counterpart at the end of the "great battle" in the Donbas.
"Ukraine is always ready for a big battle. And we have to win it, particularly in the Donbas. After that, we will have a stronger negotiating position, which will allow us to dictate certain conditions" in the peace process, Podoliak was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.