Russian forces ramp up efforts to gain control of Mariupol

Thousands of Russian troops massing for fresh offensive in the east, says Zelenskiy

Russian forces are pushing hard to establish control over the southern port city of Mariupol, the linchpin between Russian-held areas to the west and east and already devastated by weeks of siege and bombardment.

Thousands of Russian troops were massing for a fresh offensive in the east, according to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday. He added that Moscow said it would not halt its military operation in Ukraine for any further peace talks.

British intelligence indicated that Ukrainian forces had already repulsed several Russian assaults in eastern regions. Britain’s defence ministry said Russian shelling continued in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But Ukrainian forces had beaten back several assaults and destroyed tanks, vehicles and artillery equipment, it said.

For now at least, the invading forces have abandoned their attempt to capture the capital Kyiv but they are redoubling efforts in the east.

The invasion – which Russia calls a "special military operation" – has left a trail of death of destruction. Moreover, the attack has drawn condemnation from western countries and triggered concern about President Putin's broader ambitions.

Russian claims

Russia’s defence ministry said sea-launched missiles had on Sunday destroyed S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems which had been supplied to Ukraine by a European country. The batteries were concealed in a hangar on the outskirts of Dnipro in central Ukraine, it said.

The United States did not have evidence that any S-300 missile defence system had been destroyed by Russia, said a senior defence official. Washington believes Russia has started reinforcing and resupplying its troops in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, the official added, but that the US does not believe this is the start of a new offensive in the region.

President Zelenskiy appealed to South Korea’s parliament by videolink to provide his country with military aid to assist Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian onslaught.

About one-quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million population have been forced from their homes, cities turned into rubble and thousands have been killed or injured, many of them civilians.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that the Kremlin would not halt its operation for any new round of peace talks. And he accused Kyiv of failing to reciprocate in previous sessions. Mr Lavrov told state television he saw no reason not to continue with talks. But although President Putin had ordered a suspension of military action during a first round in February, Moscow’s position had changed, he said.

“A decision was made that during the next rounds of talks, there would be no pause [in military action] so long as a final agreement is not reached,” said Mr Lavrov.

Austrian leader Karl Nehammer met President Putin in Moscow on Monday and was expected to call for an end to the conflict. It was Mr Putin’s first face-to-face meeting with a European Union leader since the invasion started. “This is not a friendly meeting,” Mr Nehammer was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office, reiterating that he had hoped to help bring an end to the war or improve conditions for civilians. “The conversation with President Putin was very direct, open and tough.”

Urged to flee

Mounting civilian casualties have triggered widespread international condemnation and new sanctions.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said shelling in the region was increasing day by day.

“The most difficult situation is in [the cities of] Rubizhne and Popasna. They are being shelled constantly, round the clock,” said Mr Gaidai.

He urged all civilians to evacuate. “Those that wanted to leave have already left, while now many are left in bomb shelters who are perhaps frightened to come out . . . or scared to lose their possessions.”

Moscow has rejected accusations of war crimes by Ukraine and western countries. It has repeatedly denied targeting civilians and says its aim is to demilitarise and root out dangerous nationalists in its southern neighbour. Ukraine and western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, speaking before a meeting of European ministers in Luxembourg, said Berlin saw “massive indications” of war crimes in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, French bank Société Générale became the latest company to retreat from Russia. It agreed to sell its stake in Rosbank and the Russian lender’s insurance subsidiaries to Interros Capital, a firm linked to billionaire Vladimir Potanin.

The invasion has triggered a wave of financial sanctions from the United States, Europe and Britain, prompting western companies to sell their Russian assets. Several European Union ministers said on Monday the bloc’s executive was drafting proposals for an oil embargo on Russia, although there was still no agreement to ban Russian crude.

The World Bank forecast the war would cause Ukraine’s economic output to collapse by 45 per cent this year, with half of its businesses shuttered, grain exports mostly cut off by Russia’s naval blockade and destruction rendering economic activity impossible in many areas.

The bank forecast Russia’s gross domestic product would contract by 11.2 per cent this year due to sanctions.