Civilians have fled eastern Ukraine in advance of a forecast attack, as Russian forces closed in on the ruins of Mariupol – where 21,000 civilians have reportedly died – and Vladimir Putin said Moscow’s invasion would proceed “calmly” and to plan.
Ukrainian forces in the east dug in on Tuesday for a major new Russian offensive, with the governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Gaidai, urging all residents to evacuate as soon as possible using agreed humanitarian corridors. “It’s far more scary to remain and to burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” Gaidai said on social media. “Evacuate: with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point.”
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Tuesday that investigators had received reports of “hundreds of cases of rape” in areas around Kyiv previously occupied by Russian troops, including sexual assaults of small children.
“New mass graves are found almost daily,” Zelenskiy told the Lithuanian parliament. “Testimonials are being collected. Thousands and thousands of victims. Hundreds of cases of torture. Bodies continue to be found in drains and cellars. Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including young girls and very young children. Even of a baby.”
Officials called for an investigation into assaults against women during the conflict. “These allegations must be independently investigated to ensure justice and accountability,” said Sima Bahous, the director of the UN women’s agency.
Ukrainian security services yesterday announced the arrest of Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine, the oligarch and opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk, in what they called “lightning-fast and dangerous” operation.
“A special operation was carried out by the security service of Ukraine. Well done!” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram, and later suggested exchanging him for Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia.
Zelinskiy also urged the EU to impose sanctions on Russian oil and to set firm deadlines for ending Russian gas imports. “We cannot wait,” he told the MPs in Vilnius via video link. “We need powerful decisions. Only then will the Russian government understand they need to seek peace, that the war is turning into a catastrophe for them.”
While Russian troops have largely withdrawn from around Ukraine’s capital in the face of stiff resistance and severe logistical problems, western officials and analysts say the invasion force is gearing up for a major offensive in the east.
Russian troops also continued to pound the Azovstal industrial district of Mariupol where Ukrainian marines were making a last stand in the defence of the strategic port, largely reduced to rubble after six weeks of bombardment.
The city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said on Tuesday 21,000 civilian residents had been killed since the start of the invasion on 24 February, adding that it had become difficult to calculate the exact number of casualties since street fighting began.
Russia is believed to be trying to seize Mariupol to connect occupied Crimea with the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbas region. Kyiv, however, said its defence of the stricken city was continuing.
“The connection with the units of the defence forces that heroically hold Mariupol is stable and maintained,” Ukraine’s military command said, adding in its daily report that Russian forces were also targeting eastern towns including Popasna, west of Luhansk, and Kurakhove near Donetsk.
On Tuesday the US President Joe Biden has said Russia’s war amounts to “genocide” and that Putin was a “dictator” trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian”.
The Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, said the US could not confirm that Russia may have used chemical weapons in the siege of Mariupol after Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar said Kyiv was checking the reports.
The world’s chemical weapons watchdog has said it is “concerned” over reports of the use of chemical weapons in the besieged Ukrainian port of Mariupol and Zelenskiy said it is “not yet possible” to draw conclusions about what substance was used in Mariupol, as it has been “impossible” to conduct a full investigation.
Mariupol city hall said the area where the poisonous substance had allegedly been used could not be examined because of enemy fire. Ukrainian soldiers who had come into contact with it were being observed for possible symptoms, it said.
Visiting the far east of Russia on Tuesday, Putin said the country’s military would “undoubtedly achieve” its goals in Ukraine, describing its objectives as “noble” and insisting the operation was aimed at ensuring Russia’s security and saving people in Russian-controlled Donbas.
He said Kyiv had deliberately derailed peace talks, suggesting the war could continue for some time. “We have again returned to a dead-end situation for us,” Putin said on a visit to the Vostochny cosmodrome, 3,450 miles (5,550 km) east of Moscow.
He said Russia would “rhythmically and calmly” continue its operation until its completion and that western sanctions had failed. “The blitzkrieg on which our foes were counting did not work,” he said, claiming it was “impossible to severely isolate anyone in the modern world – especially such a vast country as Russia”.
The retreat of Russia’s forces from towns and villages around Kyiv led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and calls for an investigation into possible war crimes.
The mayor of Bucha, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said the bodies of 403 people believed killed by Russian forces had been found so far and the number was growing, while 25 women had reported being raped. “What people will find in their homes is shocking, and they will remember the Russian occupiers for a very long time,” Fedoruk said.
Putin dismissed the reports as “fakes” and said Russia’s decision to invade had been “the right one”. The president of Belarus also defended the invasion, saying it was a pre-emptive strike. Speaking after touring the cosmodrome with Putin, Alexander Lukashenko claimed without evidence that if Russia had not invaded when it did, the west was planning to launch “a crushing blow” against it within the following six weeks.
Russia’s invasion has so far driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including more than 4.6 million who have fled abroad.
Unprecedented sanctions imposed by the west in response are likely to cause Russia’s economy to contract by more than 10% in 2022, the biggest fall in GDP since the years following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, a former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, said on Tuesday.