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Russia shifting to ‘strategy of attrition’ in Ukraine as assault falters — UK intel

Top official warns this increases risk to civilians, ‘will involve reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower’; UN says nearly 6.5 million people displaced inside country

Ukrainian policemen carry a body away from a five-storey residential building that partially collapsed after a shelling in Kyiv on March 18, 2022 (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)
Ukrainian policemen carry a body away from a five-storey residential building that partially collapsed after a shelling in Kyiv on March 18, 2022 (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

Britain’s defense intelligence chief said Friday that Russia was shifting to a ”strategy of attrition” after failing to reach its goals in the invasion of Ukraine.

Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull said Russian forces have changed their approach after failing to take major Ukrainian cities during the three-week invasion.

He said that the battle of attrition “will involve the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower. This will result in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and intensify the humanitarian crisis.”

Western officials say Russian forces have enough artillery ammunition to keep up the bombardments for weeks or even longer.

Despite the fact that there have been thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties, Russia denies targeting civilians during what it calls a special military operation in Ukraine.

The UN migration agency estimates that nearly 6.5 million people have now been displaced inside Ukraine, on top of the 3.2 million refugees who have already fled the country.

This photograph taken on March 18, 2022 shows smoke rising after an explosion in Kyiv (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The estimates from the International Organization for Migration suggest Ukraine is fast on a course in just three weeks toward the levels of displacement from Syria’s devastating war — which has driven about 13 million people from their homes both in the country and abroad.

Also on Friday the head of the Russian delegation in talks with Ukrainian officials said the parties have come closer to an agreement on a neutral status for Ukraine.

Vladimir Medinsky, who led the Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, including this week, said that the sides have narrowed their differences on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status.

“The issue of neutral status and no NATO membership for Ukraine is one of the key issues in talks, and that is the issue where the parties have made their positions maximally close,” Medinsky said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

He added that the sides are now “half-way” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine. Medinsky noted that while Kyiv insists that Russia-backed separatist regions in Ukraine’s east must be brought back into the fold, Russia believes that people of the regions must be allowed to determine their fate themselves.

A couple of Ukraine soldiers holds hands as they walk in the street in Kyiv, on March 18, 2022 (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Medinsky noted that a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is possible after the negotiators finalize a draft treaty to end the hostilities and it receives a preliminary approval by the countries’ governments.

With world powers maneuvering to respond to the new conflict in Europe, the United States demanded Friday that China get tough with its “war criminal” allies in the Kremlin.

Putin shot back with the same accusation against Ukraine, in his latest of several telephone calls with French President Emmanuel Macron, a Kremlin statement said.

Putin insisted Russian forces were doing “everything possible” not to target civilians, though action on the ground such as a strike on a theater sheltering civilians in the besieged city of Mariupol belies this claim.

Rescue workers clear the rubble of a building of the Kharkiv Regional Institute of Public Administration damaged by shelling in Kharkiv on March 18, 2022 (Sergey BOBOK / AFP)

Russian missiles struck an aircraft repair site close to Lviv’s airport in Ukraine’s far west, extending the war to a relatively unscathed region near the border with NATO member Poland.

The Russian defense ministry said in a statement the strike destroyed an area housing Ukrainian fighter jets, munitions stores and military equipment.

No fatalities were reported in that strike, but early-morning strikes took lives across other Ukrainian cities.

Putin meanwhile held a triumphalist rally in Moscow despite signs that his ground offensive is flagging.

In this picture taken on March 18, 2022, 109 empty prams and baby baskets are seen placed outside the Lviv city council during an action to highlight the number of children killed in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP)

Authorities in Kyiv said one person was killed when a Russian rocket struck residential tower blocks in the capital’s northwestern suburbs. They said a school and playground were also hit.

A body lay under a sheet, near a huge crater, after the blast blew out every one of the school’s windows.

Fourteen-year-old Anna-Maria Romanchuk’s lip trembled after the missile exploded outside her school, the Gymnasium No. 34 Lydia.

“Scary,” she said in halting English, her face pale with shock as her mother comforted her. “I just hope that everything will be OK.”

Ukraine feared the biggest single toll yet from Russia’s invasion in the port city of Mariupol, after the Drama Theater was bombed on Wednesday despite signs proclaiming that children were sheltering there.

Officials said that up to 1,000 people may have been taking refuge in a bomb shelter underneath the theatre. At least 130 were rescued safely by Friday evening, but the fate of the rest was not yet clear.

Igor, a 40-year-old Ukrainian soldier embraces his wife in front of his military basement in the center of Odessa on March 17, 2022 (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Ukraine’s President Voldymyr Zelensky had vowed to continue the rescue operation in Mariupol “despite shelling” by Russian forces that has reduced the southern city to smoking ruins.

The indiscriminate fire unleashed on Mariupol is one of several instances in Ukraine that led US President Joe Biden this week to label Putin a “war criminal” — to the Kremlin’s fury.

Biden held his first call with President Xi Jinping since November, hoping to persuade China’s leader to give up any idea of bailing out Russia after the West imposed biting sanctions on Putin’s regime.

Xi told Biden that war was “in no one’s interest,” while China and the United States should “shoulder international responsibilities,” according to Chinese state media.

For Zelensky, the primary responsibility remains national survival, as he addressed Russian mothers in an earlier video message.

“We didn’t want this war. We only want peace,” he said. “And we want you to love your children more than you fear your authorities.”

Putin, however, has been taking no chances with domestic dissent in Russia — shuttering independent media, arresting anti-war demonstrators and threatening jail terms of 15 years for anyone spreading “fake news.”

Located 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the border, Lviv had until now largely escaped assault by Russian forces, and it has become a rear base for foreign diplomats fleeing Kyiv.

Smoke is seen rising near the western Ukraine city of Lviv, March 18, 2022 (Screen grab/CNN)

Valentin Vovchenko, 82, told AFP in Lviv: “We fled Kyiv because of the attacks but now they’ve started to hit here.”

In the hard-pressed eastern city of Kharkiv, Russian strikes demolished the six-story building of a higher education institution, killing one person and leaving another trapped in the wreckage, officials said.

As Putin’s ground offensive has met with fierce Ukrainian resistance, Moscow has increasingly turned to indiscriminate air and long-range strikes.

Britain’s defense ministry said that on the ground, Russia was struggling to resupply its forward troops “with even basic essentials such as food and fuel.”

“Incessant Ukrainian counter-attacks are forcing Russia to divert large numbers of troops to defend their own supply lines. This is severely limiting Russia’s offensive potential,” it said.

Moscow’s diplomatic isolation deepened as Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, following in the steps of Bulgaria.

Historically, Ukraine has been a grain-exporting breadbasket to the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on March 18, 2022. (Photo by Ramil SITDIKOV / POOL / AFP)

But the “devastating human catastrophe” now unfolding risks “extensive” economic fallout around the world, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other top global lenders warned.

“The entire global economy will feel the effects of the crisis through slower growth, trade disruptions, and steeper inflation,” they said.

For many Ukrainians, Russia’s actions on the ground and from the air make a mockery of stop-start peace talks that have been proceeding this week.

In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin on Friday accused Ukrainian authorities of “trying in every possible way to stall negotiations, putting forward more and more unrealistic proposals.”

Russia wants Ukraine to disarm and disavow all Western alliances — steps that Kyiv says would turn it into a vassal state of Moscow.

Western governments have condemned Putin’s vision for peace. In Odesa, on the Black Sea, civilians are braced for attack, with tanks deployed at road junctions and monuments covered in sandbags.

“Our beautiful Odessa,” said Lyudmila, an elderly woman wearing bright lipstick, as she looked forlornly at her city’s empty, barricaded streets.

“But thank God we are holding on! Everyone is holding on!”

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