The street in Prague in front of the Russian Embassy and the nearby bridge renamed in honor of Ukrainian heroes

Comments by a senior Russian military official that Moscow plans to take full control of the eastern Donbass region and the southern part of Ukraine in their new offensive in the country have drawn a strong reaction from kyiv as the Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces had stepped up attacks along the set. front line to the east.

Rustam Minnekayev, acting commander of the Central Military District, was cited by Russian state media on April 22, claiming full control of southern Ukraine was a strategic goal to allow access to the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, which borders Ukraine.

Minnekayev said Russian speakers were oppressed in Transnistria. Moldova and Western leaders say this is wrong.

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Minnekayev’s comments were the most detailed description yet of Russia’s goals in the second phase of its invasion of Ukraine, and were highlighted by kyiv as a sign that the Kremlin has lied in previous statements saying that he had no territorial ambitions.

“They are not going to stop. The command of the Russian Central Military District has announced the next victim of Russian aggression. After taking control of southern Ukraine, Russia plans to invade Moldova, where they say Russian speakers are ‘oppressed.'” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Twitter.

“They stopped hiding it,” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in another Tweeter. Russia “recognized that the goal of the ‘second phase’ of the war is not victory over the mythical Nazis, but simply the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. Imperialism such that it is.”

To achieve the goals set by Minnekayev, Russia would have to push hundreds of kilometers west beyond the current lines and beyond the main Ukrainian cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa. A Russian occupation of the territory would cut off the entire Ukrainian coastline from the Black Sea.

kyiv has repeatedly warned that Transnistria could be used as a staging area for Russian operations against Ukraine or Moldova, which shares a border and common history with NATO member Romania.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address on April 22 that his commander’s comments showed that Moscow wanted to invade other countries.

He also said the allies were finally delivering the weapons that kyiv had requested, adding that the weapons would help save the lives of thousands of people.

“We will defend ourselves as long as possible…but all nations that, like us, believe in the victory of life over death must fight with us,” he said.

The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces stepped up their attacks along the front line after pulling troops away from the southeastern port of Mariupol.

The Mariupol mayor’s office said Russian forces defeated around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters trapped inside the factory, the last known pocket of resistance in the city.

“Every day they drop several bombs on Azovstal,” said Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol. “The fighting, the shelling, the shelling does not stop.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said it was ready for a ceasefire to allow trapped civilians to get out, but only if Ukrainian soldiers surrendered.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said “there is a possibility” that a humanitarian corridor out of the beleaguered port city of Mariupol could be opened on April 23.

“Look at the official announcements tomorrow morning. If all goes well, I will confirm,” she said in an online address to people waiting to be evacuated.

Zelenskiy said Russia rejected a proposed truce in Mariupol over Orthodox Easter this weekend.

In the Kharkiv region, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had captured a large arms depot. He also reported hitting dozens of targets in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions on April 22.

But a senior NATO official who informed journalists on April 22 said Kharkiv had proven to be “an incredibly difficult challenge” for Russian forces.

“Ukrainian citizens in Kharkiv showed great ability to defend themselves during several counterattacks. The fighting there was extremely strong,” the official said, adding that the Ukrainians were holding the city.

The official also said that Russia should send more than a thousand mercenaries of the Vagner Group, a private military company, to fight in eastern Ukraine.

“We have already seen that the Russian private military company Vagner operates in eastern Ukraine, and we expect them to send more mercenaries, including high-ranking members of the organization,” he said. said the manager during the briefing.

Moscow is recruiting mercenaries, including foreign fighters, to make up for losses in its army, but it is unclear which of these groups will be integrated into Russian units in Ukraine and how this will affect their combat effectiveness, the official said. .

Russia’s current actions in the Donbass, where its troops are trying to advance towards Kramatorsk, point to even more aggressive operations in the future, the official added.

As the fighting escalates, the Russian government and the United Nations have announced that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week to try to discuss peace in Ukraine.

Prior to the announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks had stalled, but Vladimir Medinsky, Putin’s aide and Russia’s chief negotiator in talks with Ukraine, confirmed reports that he had several long conversations on April 22 with the head of the Ukrainian delegation, but he did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights office in Geneva said there was mounting evidence that Russia’s actions in Ukraine could amount to war crimes.

In the town of Bucha, near kyiv, a UN mission documented that 50 civilians had been killed there, including by summary execution, she said.

Russian officials denied that their soldiers killed civilians there and accused Ukraine of masterminding the atrocities.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak Reuters, AFP, CNN, BBC and AP

Berta D. Wells