Russian forces have captured several villages in eastern Ukraine in their offensive to fully control Donbas, Kyiv has said, while Moscow reported blasts on its side of the border and fears mounted that the war may spill over into neighbouring Moldova.
The Ukrainian defence ministry said on Wednesday Russian forces had pushed Kyiv's army out of Velyka Komyshuvakha and Zavody, in the northeastern Kharkiv region, and gained control over Zarichne and Novotoshkivske in Donetsk.
The Kremlin said this month it was pulling its forces out from around Kyiv to focus on capturing the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Donbas, which have been controlled by pro-Russia separatists since 2014.
A defiant Vladimir Putin vowed on Wednesday that Russia would achieve its military goals. "All the tasks of the special military operation we are conducting in the Donbas and Ukraine, launched on February 24th, will be unconditionally fulfilled," the Russian president told parliament in Moscow.
In an address in St Petersburg at a meeting of the parliament’s advisory council, Mr Putin said any countries attempting to interfere in Ukraine or creating “unacceptable strategic threats for us” would be met with a “lightning-fast” response from Moscow. He claimed he had “all the tools for this – ones that no one can brag about. And we won’t brag. We will use them if needed. And I want everyone to know this. We have already taken all the decisions on this.”
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, arrived in Ukraine committing to evacuate civilians and seek a diplomatic way to end the war, after his controversial meeting with Mr Putin and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on Tuesday.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the Donetsk region of Donbas, said on the Telegram messaging app that Russian forces "continue to deliberately fire at civilians and to destroy critical infrastructure".
The interior ministry of Moldova’s pro-Russia breakaway region of Transnistria, which borders western Ukraine, said on Wednesday that shots were fired overnight from Ukrainian territory towards a village housing a large Russian ammunition depot.
The ministry also said drones were observed over the village, and it claimed they too had been launched from Ukraine. Its statement came after a series of explosions in the unrecognised region that authorities there referred to as terrorist attacks.
Russia’s foreign ministry has refused to rule out Transnistria being drawn into the war, saying Moscow was “concerned” by the explosions targeting the state security ministry, a radio tower and military unit.
It was not clear who was behind the blasts in Transnistria but the attacks gave rise to international alarm that Moldova could be Russia’s next target, or that Moscow could try to use the breakaway region as another launching point to attack Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy claimed Russian "special services" were working to "destabilise the situation". The UN and US have expressed alarm but have not yet backed Kyiv's claim that Moscow was responsible for the incidents.
Meanwhile, blasts were heard on Wednesday in three Russian provinces bordering Ukraine, reports said, and an ammunition depot near Staraya Nelidovka in Belgorod province caught fire. Russia earlier this month accused Ukraine of attacking a fuel depot in Belgorod but Kyiv has not confirmed responsibility for incidents reported on Russian territory.
The Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said it was natural that Russian regions where fuel and weapons were stored were learning about "demilitarisation" – a pointed reference to Moscow's stated objective for the nine-week-old war in Ukraine, which it calls a special military operation to disarm and "denazify" its neighbour.
“If you [Russians] decide to massively attack another country, massively kill everyone there, massively crush peaceful people with tanks, and use warehouses in your regions to enable the killings, then sooner or later the debts will have to be repaid,” Mr Podolyak said. “Karma is a cruel thing.”
Russia’s defence ministry said its Kalibr missiles had struck an arms depot in Ukraine’s southern-central Zaporizhzhia region storing “foreign weapons and ammunition supplied to Ukrainian troops by the US and European countries”.
The ministry said Russia's airforce destroyed 59 Ukrainian military targets overnight. Petro Andryushchenko, an official in Mariupol, said Russian forces hit the Azovstal steel plant there, where about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters and 1,000 civilians are still holed up, with 35 airstrikes over 24 hours.
Ukraine's prosecutor-general said Russian forces had used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a pro-Ukraine rally in the southern city of Kherson, the first big urban centre seized by Moscow after the invasion.
Despite the collapse in ties between Russia and the West, Moscow and Washington carried out a prisoner swap on Wednesday. The US freed a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been jailed on drug-trafficking charges, while Russia released former US marine Trevor Reed, who was accused of fighting with police.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said it expects more than eight million Ukrainians to eventually flee their country, with nearly 5.3 million having already left, and that $1.85 billion (€1.75bn) will be needed to host them in neighbouring countries. – Guardian/Agencies