Russia attacks Ukrainian sites far from eastern Donbas, as ICC agrees to investigate war crimes
'Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding,' says U.S. secretary of state after visit to Kyiv
Russia unleashed a string of attacks on Monday against rail and fuel installations deep inside Ukraine, far from the front lines of Moscow's new eastern offensive, in a bid to thwart Ukrainian efforts to marshal supplies for the fight.
The United States, meanwhile, moved to rush more weaponry to Ukraine and said the assistance from the Western allies is making a difference in the two-month-old war.
"Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared, a day after he and the U.S. defence secretary made a bold visit to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Blinken said Washington approved a $165 million US sale of ammunition — non-U.S. ammunition mainly, if not entirely, for Ukraine's Soviet-era weapons — and will also provide more than $300 million US in financing to buy more supplies.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin took his comments further, saying that while the U.S. wants to see Ukraine remain a sovereign, democratic country, it also wants "to see Russia weakened to the point where it can't do things like invade Ukraine."
Nuclear conflict 'should not be underestimated'
Austin's comments about weakening Russia appear to represent a broader U.S. strategic goal. Previously, the U.S. position had been that the goal of American military aid was to help Ukraine win and to defend Ukraine's NATO neighbours against Russian threats.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said weapons supplied by Western countries "will be a legitimate target," adding that Russian forces had already targeted weapons warehouses in western Ukraine.
"Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War III," Lavrov said in a wide-ranging interview on Russian television. He accused Ukrainian leaders of provoking Russia by asking NATO to become involved in the conflict.
By providing weapons, NATO forces are "pouring oil on the fire," he said, according to a transcript on the Russian foreign ministry's website.
Regarding the possibility of a nuclear confrontation, Lavrov said: "I would not want to see these risks artificially inflated now, when the risks are rather significant."
"The danger is serious," he said. "It is real. It should not be underestimated."
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of trying to "split Russian society and to destroy Russia from within."
Another mass grave
Officials in the embattled Ukrainian city of Mariupol say a new mass grave has been identified. Mayor Vadym Boychenko said authorities are trying to estimate the number of victims in the grave, about 10 kilometres north of Mariupol.
Satellite photos released over the past several days yielded what appeared to be images of other mass graves.
Mariupol has been gutted by bombardment and fierce street fighting over the past two months. In addition to freeing up Russian troops, the capture of the city would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
In his nightly video address, Zelensky said his country's goal is to maintain resistance and "make the occupiers' stay in our land even more intolerable," while Russia drains its resources.
Britain said it believes 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine since Moscow began its invasion. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said 25 per cent of the Russian combat units sent to Ukraine "have been rendered not combat effective," and Russia had lost more than 2,000 armoured vehicles and more than 60 helicopters and fighter planes.
Ukrainian officials have said about 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed as of mid-April.
Phillips O'Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said the war is, for now, settling into a campaign of incremental battlefield losses and gains.
"The two sides are sort of every day weakening each other," he said. "So it's a question of what can you bring in that's new, but what can you destroy on the other side?"
War crimes investigation
In other developments, fires were reported at two oil facilities in western Russia, not far from the Ukrainian border. Their cause was not immediately known.
And the the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Co-operation (Eurojust) said on Monday that the International Criminal Court (ICC) will take part in the joint team investigating allegations of war crimes in Ukraine following the Russian invasion.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan and the prosecutors general from Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine signed an agreement for the international war crimes tribunal's first-ever participation in an investigative team, according to a press release issued by Eurojust.
"With this agreement, parties are sending a clear message that all efforts will be undertaken to effectively gather evidence on core international crimes committed in Ukraine and bring those responsible to justice," the Eurojust agency said.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, its apparent goal was a lightning offensive to take the capital and perhaps even topple the government. But the Ukrainians, aided by Western weapons, bogged down Putin's troops and thwarted their push to Kyiv.
Moscow now says its focus is the eastern region of the Donbas, though one senior military official said it also wants to control southern Ukraine. While both sides said the campaign in the east has begun, it has not achieved any major breakthroughs.
Russia targets Ukrainian resources
On Monday, Russia focused its firepower elsewhere, with missiles and warplanes striking far behind the front lines.
Five railroad stations in central and western Ukraine were hit, and one worker was killed, said Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of Ukraine's state railway. The bombardment included a missile attack near Lviv, the western city close to the Polish border that has been swelled by Ukrainians fleeing the fighting elsewhere around the country.
Ukrainian authorities said that at least five people were killed by Russian strikes in the central Vinnytsia region.
Russia also destroyed an oil refinery in Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine, along with fuel depots there, Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said. In all, Russian warplanes destroyed 56 Ukrainian targets overnight, he said.
Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. general who was NATO's top commander from 2013 to 2016, said the latest strikes against fuel depots are part of a strategy to deplete key Ukrainian war resources. The strikes against rail targets, on the other hand, are a newer tactic, he said.
"I think they're doing it for the legitimate reason of trying to interdict the flow of supplies to the front," Breedlove said. "The illegitimate reason is they know people are trying to leave the country, and this is just another intimidation, terrorist tactic to make them not have faith and confidence in travelling on the rails."
Civilians still holed up in steel plant
Earlier Monday, the Russian Defence Ministry announced plans for a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to safely exit the besieged steel mill in Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials have said up to 1,000 civilians are sheltering in the Azovstal plant.
But Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app that Ukraine had not agreed to that evacuation plan and for that reason does not consider the route safe.
Vereshchuk also said that Russia had breached agreements on similar humanitarian corridors before. Ukraine is asking the United Nations to step in to oversee the evacuation.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to visit Russia and Ukraine this week. Vereshchuk called on Guterres to be the "initiator and guarantor" of a humanitarian route out of Azovstal, and for UN and International Committee of the Red Cross personnel to accompany any evacuees.
The mammoth steel plant, which has a sprawling maze of underground channels, is the last remaining stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the strategic Sea of Azov port city.
Ukrainian troops have stubbornly held out for weeks at the sprawling plant, despite a pummelling from Russian forces and repeated demands for their surrender.
With files from Reuters