Russia shifts command in Ukraine as thousands flee East

Russia on Saturday reorganized command of its flagging offensive in Ukraine, selecting a general for the mission accused of ordering attacks on civilian neighborhoods in Syria, as Western nations dumped more weapons in anticipation of another Russian attack in the east poured the land.

The appointment of General Aleksandr V. Dvornikov as supreme battlefield commander came as Britain announced it would deploy missiles targeting planes, tanks and even ships, and as Slovakia handed the Ukrainian military a long-range S-300 air defense system system, with the blessing of the United States.

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

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

“Other western democratic countries should follow Britain’s example,” Mr Zelensky said after meeting Mr Johnson.

The two leaders walked the mostly empty cobblestone streets of Kyiv, showing their confidence that the Ukrainian capital is now safe from Russian attacks. Outside a shop, a man greeted them warmly and thanked Mr Johnson in effusive Ukrainian for Britain’s support, 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 did in places like Bucha and Irpin, his war crimes, have tarnished his reputation and the reputation of his government,” he added. “There is much to be done to ensure that Ukraine succeeds, that Ukraine wins and that Putin fails.”

Mr Johnson’s efforts to strengthen Ukraine came as fears of a new Russian attack escalated. Despite its large army and considerable military power, Russia was unable to take Kyiv and now appears to be struggling to maintain dominance in south-eastern Ukraine, appoint a new commander for its offensive and move troops from the capital into a To withdraw area where there is advantage of support from local ethnic Russian separatists.

“Russian forces continue to try to regroup and deploy units withdrawn from north-eastern Ukraine to support an offensive in eastern Ukraine, but these units are unlikely to facilitate a Russian breakthrough and face low morale,” the report said Institute for War Studies, a Washington think tank.

Despite this, Russia’s airstrikes and missiles continue to cause 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 others who followed official warnings to flee.

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

In a statement condemning the attack on the train station, the European Union said on Saturday that Russia was clearly guilty and that “attempts to disguise Russia’s responsibility for this and other crimes through disinformation and media manipulation are unacceptable”.

Mr Zelensky described the attack as “another war crime” and said it would be investigated along with other atrocities attributed to Russian forces, including the apparent killings of civilians in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb.

“Like the Bucha massacre, the Kramatorsk missile attack, like many other Russian war crimes, must be one of the charges before the tribunal, which will certainly happen,” said Zelenskyy, urging Russian commanders to face such trials in confrontation with the Nazis in Nuremberg after World War II.

Japan said it would join the United States and European nations in assisting investigations, expelling eight Russian diplomats, banning Russian coal and restricting Russian imports of wood, vodka and machinery.

Japan accused Russia of repeated attacks on civilians and nuclear power plants, a sore point for Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

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

Legal experts have said it would be difficult to bring war crimes charges against Kremlin officials. The burden of proof is very high, as prosecutors must prove that soldiers and their commanders intended to violate international law, which sets the rules of war.

Western analysts and European intelligence officials believe that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is trying to make gains on the battlefield by May 9, when he plans to deliver a Victory Day speech to commemorate both the Soviet victory in the Second World War and the military operation in Ukraine.

On Saturday, Russian forces increased shelling in eastern Ukraine, with explosions reported in the Odessa and Kharkiv regions. The concentration of Russian forces in the region after withdrawing from areas around Kyiv has prompted officials in the east to urge residents to flee. And have thousands.

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

“I didn’t bring anything,” she said. “I just brought my paperwork and a change of clothes for a few days.”

Elsewhere in Dnipro, dozens of people waited to board buses bound for Bulgaria.

“The airstrikes are becoming more frequent,” said Ludmila Abramova, 62, who fled Pavlograd, a city near the eastern Donbass region, where Russia is refocusing its forces. “I’m leaving.”

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

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

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

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

Less than 400 people got on buses from Kramatorsk on Saturday, he said, probably heading west, which are considered safer.

The European Commission said on Saturday that a global fundraiser 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 fled their homes since the February 24 invasion, and more than 4.4 million have fled the country altogether, amid the fastest-moving exodus of European refugees since World War II, according to the United Nations.

General Dvornikov’s appointment comes as the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that tracks the fighting, noted in its latest assessment that Russian forces in the east appear to have stalled and are “unlikely to… enable a Russian breakthrough and face low morale.”

General Dvornikov was the first commander dispatched from Moscow in 2015 to oversee Russian forces in the Syrian civil war after the Kremlin stepped in to prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s struggling military.

General Dvornikov was there for about a year and was named Hero of the Russian Federation for his role. He oversaw forces widely accused of bombing civilian neighborhoods, attacking hospitals and resorting to other scorched-earth tactics to break the spine of the rebel movement seeking to overthrow Mr al-Assad.

“Bashar al-Assad is not the only one held accountable for the killing of civilians in Syria. So should the Russian general,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor. “As commander of military operations, that means he stands behind the killing of Syrian civilians by giving the orders.”

The actions of the Syrian government and Russian forces have been widely denounced by Western officials and human rights organizations, who have said some of their tactics amount to war crimes.

The commander of a Syrian Christian militia that received support from and fought alongside Russian forces in Syria said General Dvornikov had been caught up 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, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Russia had conducted its military campaign against Ukraine from Moscow, without a central commander on the ground to coordinate air, ground and sea forces. That approach helped explain why the invasion faced unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance and was plagued by poor logistics and flagging morale, American 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 junior officers or senior enlisted personnel.

Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, Jane Araf from Lviv, Ukraine, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was provided by Andrew Higgins in Kosice, Slovakia. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Dnipro, Ukraine, Cora Engelbrecht from Kraków, Victoria Kim from Seoul, Julian E Barnes from Washington, Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut and Stephen Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels.

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