In an indication that Russian forces were ending what they called an operational pause in their invasion of Ukraine, the defense minister of Russia, Sergei Shoigu, on Saturday ordered his forces to intensify attacks “in all operational sectors” of the war.
As the Ukrainian government disclosed modest new ground attacks by Russian forces, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement that Shoigu had instructed that combat be intensified to stop Ukraine from shelling civilian areas in Russian-occupied territory.
After deadly Russian missile strikes across Ukraine in recent days that killed civilians, the statement was a new signal from Moscow that its invasion may be entering a more aggressive phase.
Shoigu’s statement appeared to be a response to Ukraine’s new ability to hit Russian targets in occupied areas due to more advanced, longer-range Western weapons, including the U.S. HIMARS precision-guided rocket systems and the French Caesar artillery pieces. Ukraine claims to have hit at least 30 Russian ammunition and logistics sites with the new longer-range weapons in the past two weeks.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested to lawmakers that Russia would escalate the war. “Everyone should know that, by and large, we have not started anything seriously yet,” Putin said.
There were signs of new ground fighting in the hotly contested Donbas region, where Russian forces have taken one of its provinces, Luhansk, and are trying to take the rest of another, Donetsk, as well. Ukrainian military and regional officials reported five probing attacks along the crescent-shaped front line in the Donbas.
Ukrainian troops using “heavy fire” repelled a renewed overnight ground assault to capture the main road link between the cities of Lysychansk and Bakhmut, said Serhii Haidai, military governor of Luhansk, an assertion echoed in a report Saturday by Ukraine’s general staff. The road has been bitterly contested for months.
The latest analysis by the Institute for the Study of War said Russian forces were “likely emerging from their operational pause,” citing a series of limited ground assaults northwest of Sloviansk, southeast of Siversk, along the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway and southwest of the city of Donetsk. “These assaults may indicate that Russian forces are attempting to resume their offensive operations in Donbas,” the analysis said, while noting that “the assaults are still small-scale and were largely unsuccessful.”
Some soldiers serving on front-line positions in the Donetsk region question whether the Russians ever actually paused, saying they have been under constant attack on the ground and with artillery and aerial bombardment.
The sound of heavy explosions is often audible from the front-line cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut. Smoke from fires dots the horizon south and east of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have been trying to advance.
A rocket hit a small fruit-and-vegetable market in Bakhmut on Friday afternoon, wounding several people. Early Saturday, three more rockets struck a factory and a house in Kostiantynivka but without causing any casualties. “My cafe is broken. Factories are smashed. Everything is closed,” said Vitaliy, 40, as he repaired the boards on his cafe windows the day after the blast. “There is nothing left. What will the people buy?”
In the early hours of Saturday, at least three civilians were killed and three more were injured in a Russian rocket strike on the northern Ukrainian city of Chuhuiv, about 75 miles from the Russian border, regional police said.
In the neighboring Sumy region, one civilian was killed and at least seven more were injured after Russians opened mortar and artillery fire on three towns and villages not far from the Russian border, the regional governor said Saturday.
In Donetsk, seven civilians were killed and 14 more injured, the regional governor said Saturday.
The major strike came Thursday, when a Russian submarine fired cruise missiles into the heart of Vinnytsia, a city of 370,000 people about 125 miles southwest of Kyiv, the capital.
Ukrainian officials said that strike killed at least 23 people, including a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome, causing outrage in Ukraine and the West.
The Russian defense ministry said the strike on Vinnytsia was directed at a building where top officials from Ukraine’s armed forces were meeting foreign arms suppliers. Ukrainian officials have denied that the building contained military targets.
The war is causing significant economic stress in the rest of the world, reducing global growth both this year and next, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told a hybrid meeting of Group of 20 finance ministers and heads of central banks.
“The war in Ukraine has intensified, exerting added pressures on commodity and food prices,” she said in a statement Saturday. “Global financial conditions are tightening more than previously anticipated. And continuing pandemic-related disruptions and renewed bottlenecks in global supply chains are weighing on economic activity.”
Adding to the stress in Germany, which has been dependent on Russian energy, was a new statement by the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, urging German company Siemens to return a turbine it has repaired in Canada to ensure the Nord Stream 1 pipeline delivering gas to Europe can resume working after a 10-day maintenance period that began Monday.
Despite Western sanctions on Russia, Canada has agreed to grant what it has described as a time-limited and revocable permit for Siemens Canada to allow the turbine’s return. But Gazprom claims it has received no guarantees that the unit will be returned.
Germany was already coping with a 60% reduction in gas supplies through that pipeline, amid fears that Russia will not resume deliveries after maintenance. Conservative politicians have revived debate on extending the life of the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants, which produce about 6% of Germany’s electricity, a sensitive topic for the Greens, now in government. The plants are supposed to be shut down by the end of this year.
The European Union has banned the import of Russian coal, but a ban it imposed on oil imports is only gradual and partial. And there is no agreement on banning imports of natural gas. Brussels has also compromised on allowing Gazprom to be paid effectively in rubles, as Russia has demanded, with euro deposits into Gazprom’s own bank immediately shifted into rubles.
The EU has also backed off on enforcing full sanctions on goods moving from mainland Russia to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The enclave is separated from the rest of Russia by Poland and Lithuania; Lithuania created tensions with Moscow by announcing that it would impose EU sanctions on Russian goods traveling by train to Russian Kaliningrad through Lithuania.
After fierce Russian complaints, Brussels “updated” its guidelines and said Russia would be allowed to transport civilian-use goods on the sanctions list through Lithuania by rail — though not by road — in amounts comparable to pre-invasion deliveries over the past three years.
There can be targeted checks, Brussels said, to ensure that sanctioned military and dual-use goods and related technologies are not part of the rail shipments.
As Russia seeks more answers to counter the newer NATO mobile artillery systems, it has turned to Iran to explore buying that country’s sophisticated armed drones, the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said last week. On Saturday, a senior American official said that satellite images showed a Russian delegation visiting Iran to view unmanned, weapons-capable drones that could be purchased for use in the war in Ukraine and that could be used to better target the new NATO artillery in counter-battery strikes.