KYIV, July 17 (Reuters) – Russia is preparing for the next stage of its offensive in Ukraine, a Ukrainian military official said, after Moscow said its forces would step up military operations in “all operational areas”.
As Western deliveries of long-range arms begin to help Ukraine on the battlefield, Russian rockets and missiles have pounded cities in strikes that Kyiv says have killed dozens in recent days.
“It is not only missile strikes from the air and sea,” Vadym Skibitskyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence, said late on Saturday. “We can see shelling along the entire line of contact, along the entire front line. There is an active use of tactical aviation and attack helicopters.
“Clearly preparations are now underway for the next stage of the offensive.”
The Ukrainian military said Russia appeared to be regrouping units for an offensive toward Sloviansk, a symbolically important city held by Ukraine in the eastern region of Donetsk.
The British defence ministry said on Sunday that Russia was also reinforcing defences across areas it occupies in southern Ukraine after pressure from Ukrainian forces and pledges from Ukrainian leaders to drive Russia out.
Ukraine says at least 40 people have been killed in Russian shelling of urban areas since Thursday as the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24 intensifies.
Dozens of relatives and local residents attended the funeral of 4-year-old Liza Dmytrieva in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia on Sunday. The girl was killed in a missile strike on central Vinnytsia on Thursday that killed 24 people, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Rockets hit the northeastern town of Chuhuiv in Kharkiv region on Friday night, killing three people including a 70-year-old woman and wounding three others, said regional Governor Oleh Synehubov.
“Three people lost their lives, why? What for? Because Putin went mad?” said Raisa Shapoval, 83, a distraught resident sitting in the ruins of her home.
To the south, more than 50 Russian Grad rockets pounded the city of Nikopol on the Dnipro River, killing two people who were found in the rubble, Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said.
EIGHT YEARS ON
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia was continuing to sow grief and death on Ukrainian soil eight years on from the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. International investigators have said the plane was downed by a Russian surface-to-air missile likely fired by Russian-backed militia in the region.
Zelenskiy said his thoughts were with relatives of the dead and that nothing would go unpunished. “Every criminal will be brought to justice!” he wrote on Twitter.
Moscow, which calls the invasion a “special military operation” to demilitarise its neighbour and root out nationalists, says it uses high-precision weapons to degrade Ukraine’s military infrastructure and protect its own security. Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians.
Kyiv and the West say the conflict is an unprovoked attempt to reconquer a country that broke free of Moscow’s rule with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered military units to intensify operations to prevent Ukrainian strikes on eastern Ukraine and other areas held by Russia, where he said Kyiv could hit civilian infrastructure or residents, according to a statement from the ministry.
His remarks on Saturday appeared to be a direct response to what Kyiv says is a string of successful strikes carried out on 30 Russian logistics and ammunitions hubs, using several multiple launch rocket systems recently supplied by the West.
The strikes are causing havoc with Russian supply lines and have significantly reduced Russia’s offensive capability, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokesperson said on Friday.
He singled out U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that Kyiv began receiving last month.
“Good morning from HIMARS,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s president wrote on Telegram on Sunday alongside a video showing a large explosion which he said was another destroyed Russian ammunition depot in southern Ukraine.
Vadym Skibitskyi, an official at Ukrainian military intelligence, said on Saturday that HIMARS could be used on targets in Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014 when it also backed armed separatists in east Ukraine.
On Sunday, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said the refusal of Ukraine and NATO powers to recognise Moscow’s authority over Crimea represents a “systemic threat” for Russia, which has the headquarters of its Black Sea fleet there.
Russian-backed separatists said Ukraine had hit the town of Alchevsk, east of Sloviansk, with six HIMARS rockets on Saturday. The self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic said the strikes had killed two civilians and damaged a bus depot, health camp and apartments.
Ukraine’s armed forces said they had struck the bus depot because they had information it was being used to house Russian troops.
The Russian defence ministry said its forces had destroyed a launch ramp and reloading vehicle for one of the HIMARS systems deployed near the eastern city of Pokrovsk.
The head of Pokrovsk regional police, Ruslan Osypenko, said a residential area had been shelled by Russia with multiple rocket launchers and there were dead and wounded. It released video of damaged homes and residents describing the attack.
(Reporting by Reuters bureauxWriting by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa FletcherEditing by Frances Kerry and Frank Jack Daniel)