KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian and British officials warned Saturday that Russian forces are relying on weapons able to cause mass casualties as they try to make headway in capturing eastern Ukraine and fierce, prolonged fighting depletes resources on both sides.
Russian bombers have likely been launching heavy 1960s-era anti-ship missiles in Ukraine, the UK Defense Ministry said. The Kh-22 missiles were primarily designed to destroy aircraft carriers using a nuclear warhead. When used in ground attacks with conventional warheads, they “are highly inaccurate and therefore can cause severe collateral damage and casualties,” the ministry said.
Both sides have expended large amounts of weaponry in what has become a grinding war of attrition for the eastern region of coal mines and factories known as the Donbas, placing huge strains on their resources and stockpiles.
Russia is likely using the 6.1-ton anti-ship missiles because it is running short of more precise modern missiles, the British ministry said. It gave no details of where exactly such missiles are thought to have been deployed.
As Russia also sought to consolidate its hold over territory seized so far in the 108-day war, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine “is what happens when oppressors trample the rule that protect us all.”
“It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors,” Austin said during a visit to Asia. “And it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”
Along with the UK Defense Ministry’s assessment, a Ukrainian governor accused Russia of using incendiary weapons in the village of Vrubivka in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk province, southwest of the fiercely contested cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
While the use of flamethrowers on the battlefield is legal, Serhii Haidai, governor of Luhansk province, alleged the attacks overnight caused widespread damage to civilian facilities.
“Information about the number of victims in Vrubivka, in the Popasnyanska district, is being specified. At night, the enemy used a flamethrower rocket system — many houses burnt down,” Haidai wrote on Telegram on Saturday.
The accuracy of Haidai’s claims could not be immediately verified.
Severodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk are the last major areas of Luhansk province remaining under Ukrainian control. Haidai said the Russians were destroying critical industrial facilities, including railway depots, a brick factory and a glass factory.
The Ukrainian army said Saturday that Russian forces were regrouping to launch an offensive on the Donetsk province city of Sloviansk.
Moscow-backed rebels have controlled self-proclaimed republics in both Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014, and Russia is trying to seize the territory still under Ukrainian control.
In its regular operational update, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian soldiers managed to get a foothold overnight in the village of Bohorodychne, 24 kilometers (about 15 miles) northwest of Sloviansk, and were preparing to attack the city.
The Donetsk regional police said Russian missiles hit 13 towns and villages in the province overnight. In a statement, the police said civilians had been killed and wounded, without specifying numbers. Donetsk and Luhansk make up the Donbas.
The Ukrainian army’s update said that the threat of missiles and airstrikes on Ukraine from Belarus remains, noting that the Belarusian government extended military exercises along the Ukrainian-Belarusian border until June 18.
Also Saturday, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, Jan Lipavsky, said a Czech citizen died fighting in Donetsk. It is the first reported Czech fatality among foreign volunteers fighting alongside Ukrainians.
Amid worries over Moscow’s actions in occupied Ukrainian territories, Russian-installed officials in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region have set up a company to buy up local grain and resell it on Moscow’s behalf, a local representative told the Interfax news agency on Saturday.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of stealing Ukraine’s grain and causing a global food crisis that could cause millions of deaths from hunger.
Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of Zaporizhzhia’s pro-Russian provisional administration, said the new state-owned grain company has taken control of several facilities.
He said “the grain will be Russian” and “we don’t care who the buyer will be.”
Balitsky added that the company is considering the purchase of grain from both this year and last year’s harvests, with collection beginning in two weeks. It was not clear if the farmers whose grain was being sold by Russia were getting paid.
He said his administration would not forcibly appropriate grain or pressure producers to sell it.
Russian forces occupying the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol began handing out Russian passports to local residents Saturday, according to Russian state TASS agency.
A Telegram post by TASS cited a Russian-installed local official as the original source of the information. It did not specify how many Melitopol residents had requested or received Russian citizenship.
Earlier on Saturday, the agency reported that more than 800,000 people in separatist-held territories in Ukraine’s industrial east had received Russian citizenship “through a simplified procedure” since April 2019.
Melitopol is located outside of the Donbas in the region of Zaporizhzhia, which is still held partly by Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists controlling parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region said they were planning a trial against a captured South Korean citizen who had fought on the side of Ukraine.
The top diplomat of the self-proclaimed, unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic broke the news on Russian state TV on Saturday.
“Now a verdict is being prepared, as far as we know, on a mercenary from South Korea. This is their citizen, who fought on the side of the armed forces of Ukraine,” Natalya Nikonorova said.
She did not disclose the individual’s identity or give further specifics. On Thursday, a DNR court handed death sentences to two British nationals and a Moroccan who had fought in the Ukrainian military and been accused of being mercenaries.
Ukrainian and UK authorities both condemned these proceedings as a “sham trial,” and insisted that the men had been regular members of the Ukrainian military.
During a visit to Kyiv by the European Union’s top official, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a new round of “even stronger” EU sanctions against Russia.
Zelensky called for the new sanctions to target more Russian officials, including judges, and to hamper the activities of all Russian banks, including gas giant Gazprom’s bank, as well as all Russian companies helping Moscow “in any way.”
He spoke during a brief press appearance with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the heavily guarded presidential office compound in Kyiv.
The pair discussed Ukraine’s aspirations for EU membership. Zelensky said Ukraine “will do everything” to integrate with the bloc.
Von der Leyen praised Ukraine’s “strength and resilience” in the face of Russia’s “horrible and atrocious” invasion and said the EU would assist with reconstruction so the country could “rise from the ashes.”
“We are mourning with you. We share the tears with you,” she said.
Von der Leyen was on her second visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbor. She was one of the first European leaders to go to Ukraine during the war.
Nearly 800 children have been killed or injured in Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian authorities said Saturday.
According to a statement by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, at least 287 children died as a result of military activity, while at least 492 more have been injured. The statement stressed the figures were not final and said they were based on investigations by juvenile prosecutors.
The officer said children in Ukraine’s Donetsk province, which together with Luhansk makes up the Donbas, suffered the most, with 217 reported killed or injured, compared with 132 and 116, respectively, in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions.