Russia shakes command in Ukraine as thousands flee east

Russia on Saturday reorganized command of its flag offensive in Ukraine, selecting for the mission a general accused of ordering strikes on civilian neighborhoods in Syria, while Western countries threw more weapons into the country in anticipation of a renewed Russian attack in the east.

The appointment of the general, Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, as the top battlefield commander came when Britain announced it would send missiles aimed at planes, tanks and even ships, and when Slovakia handed the Ukrainian army a long-range S-300 air defense system, with the blessing of the United States.

In another show of support for Ukraine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Great Britain paid a surprise visit to Kiev, the capital, on Saturday, where he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and discussed a “new package of financial and military aid”. the British government said.

Mr Zelensky called on other Western leaders to similarly provide military aid to Ukraine and impose further sanctions on Russia.

“Other western democratic countries should follow the UK’s lead,” said Mr. Zelensky after meeting Mr. johnson.

The two leaders walked through the largely empty cobblestone streets of Kiev in a vote of confidence that the Ukrainian capital was now safe from Russian attacks. Outside a shop, a man greeted them warmly and thanked Mr Johnson for Britain’s support in effusive Ukrainian, as Mr Zelensky translated.

“In recent weeks, the world has found new heroes, and those heroes are the people of Ukraine,” Mr Johnson said.

“What Putin has done in places like Bucha and Irpin, his war crimes, has permanently tarnished his reputation and the reputation of his government,” he added. “A huge amount needs to be done to ensure that Ukraine is successful, that Ukraine wins and that Putin fails.”

Mr Johnson’s attempt to bolster Ukraine came as fears of another Russian attack escalated. Despite its large army and considerable military might, Russia was unable to take Kiev and now appears to be trying to maintain dominance in southeastern Ukraine, appointing a new commander for its offensive and withdrawing troops from the capital to an area where it has the advantage of support from local ethnic Russian separatists.

“Russian forces continue to try to regroup and redeploy units withdrawn from northeastern Ukraine to support an offensive in eastern Ukraine, but these units are unlikely to allow a Russian breakthrough and cause poor morale.” will experience,” according to a report from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Still, Russian air strikes and missiles continue to inflict serious damage. A rocket attack on a train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk on Friday killed more than 50 people, including children, and injured many more who heeded official warnings to flee.

Moscow denied responsibility for the attack, but US military officials and independent analysts in Washington said they believed Russian forces had launched the missiles.

In a statement condemning the attack on the train station, the European Union said on Saturday that Russia is clearly guilty and that “attempts to conceal Russia’s responsibility for these and other crimes using disinformation and media manipulation are unacceptable. “

Zelensky described the attack as “a new war crime” and said it would be investigated, along with other atrocities blamed on Russian forces, including the apparent killings of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kiev.

“Like the Bucha massacre, like many other Russian war crimes, the missile attack on Kramatorsk has to be one of the charges before the tribunal, which will certainly happen,” said Mr Zelensky, calling on Russian commanders to stop such trials. undergo. After World War II, the Nazis were confronted in Nuremberg.

Japan said it would join the United States and European countries in supporting investigations and expel eight Russian diplomats, ban Russian coal and restrict Russian imports of wood, vodka and machinery.

Japan accused Russia of repeatedly attacking civilians and nuclear power plants, a pain point for Japan after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011.

“We must hold Russia strictly responsible for these atrocities,” said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Legal experts have said it would be difficult to charge war crimes against Kremlin officials. The burden of proof is very high, requiring prosecutors to show that soldiers and their commanders intended to violate international law that defines the rules of war.

Western analysts and European intelligence officials believe that Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin is seeking battlefield gains by May 9, when he plans to deliver a Victory Day speech commemorating both the Soviet victory in World War II and the military operation in Ukraine .

On Saturday, Russian forces stepped up shelling in eastern Ukraine, with explosions reported in the Odessa and Kharkov regions. The massive build-up of Russian troops in the region after they withdrew from the areas around Kiev has prompted officials in the east to urge residents to flee. And thousands have.

“The Russian troops are coming, so we are leaving to save our lives,” said Svitlana Kyrychenko, 47, who evacuated from Kramatorsk on Saturday morning with her 18-year-old daughter, elderly mother and aunt. She was at the train station in the center of Dnipro, looking for a place to stay.

“I didn’t bring anything,” she said. “I only brought my documents and clothes to change for a few days.”

Elsewhere in Dnipro, dozens of people waited for the bus to Bulgaria.

“The air strikes are becoming more frequent,” said Ludmila Abramova, 62, who had fled Pavlograd, a town near the eastern Donbas region, where Russia has refocused its forces. “I am leaving.”

“But everything will be fine,” Ms Abramova added. “I’ll be right back.”

More than 6,600 people managed to flee besieged Ukrainian cities on Friday, according to the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk – a record number for the week.

But in Kramatorsk there was no panic after the attack on the train station, said the mayor, Oleksandr Honcharenko. He said he expected about a quarter of the city’s 200,000 residents to stay there, and he was preparing food, water and medical supplies.

“The only thing that will convince them to leave the city is if it comes under siege,” Mr Honcharenko said.

Fewer than 400 people had boarded buses from Kramatorsk on Saturday, he said, presumably bound for areas in the west that are considered safer.

The European Commission said on Saturday that a global fundraising campaign called “Stand up for Ukraine” had raised €9.1 billion, including €1 billion from the commission, for people fleeing the Russian invasion.

More than seven million Ukrainians have left their homes since the February 24 invasion, and more than 4.4 million have left the country in total, in the fastest-moving exodus of European refugees since World War II, according to the United Nations.

General Dvornikov’s appointment came as the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that monitors the fighting, said in its latest assessment that Russian forces in the east appeared to be coming to a standstill, and that it was “unlikely that a Russian breakthrough and faced with poor morale.”

General Dvornikov was the first commander sent from Moscow to oversee Russian forces in the Syrian civil war in 2015, after the Kremlin intervened to support President Bashar al-Assad’s warring army.

General Dvornikov was there for about a year and was proclaimed the Hero of the Russian Federation for his role. He oversaw troops widely accused of bombing civilian neighborhoods, attacking hospitals and resorting to other scorched-earth tactics to crush the rebel movement that Mr al-Assad sought to oust.

“Bashar al-Assad is not alone in being held responsible for the killing of civilians in Syria. The Russian general should do the same,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war observer in Britain. “As a commander of military operations, it means he stands behind the killing of Syrian civilians by giving the orders.”

The actions of the Syrian government and Russian armed forces were widely condemned by Western officials and human rights groups, who said some of their tactics amounted to war crimes.

The commander of a Syrian Christian militia that received support from and fought alongside Russian forces in Syria said General Dvornikov was involved in fighting in many parts of the country.

“He was a real commander, very serious, proud of the Russian army and its military history,” the commander said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Russia conducted its military campaign against Ukraine from Moscow, with no central commander on site to coordinate air, ground and sea units. That approach helped explain why the invasion struggled with unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance and was plagued by poor logistics and weak morale, US officials said.

The disorganized attack also contributed to the deaths of at least seven Russian generals as senior officers were pushed to the front lines to solve tactical problems that Western militaries would have left to more junior officers or higher enlisted personnel.

Eric Schmitt message from Washington, Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, and Michael Levenson From New York. Reporting contributed by Andrew Higgins in Kosice, Slovakia, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Dnipro, Ukraine, Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Victoria Kim from Seoul, Julian E. Barnes from Washington, Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut and Steven Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels.

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