Russia captures first major city in eastern Ukraine as world grapples with war’s fallout

Russia captures first major city in eastern Ukraine as world grapples with war’s fallout

Russia marched ahead Tuesday with the “new phase” of its war in Ukraine, capturing the eastern city of Kreminna and launching missile strikes across the disputed Donbas region even as new evidence emerged of the devastating toll the war is having on the global economy.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who reappeared Tuesday after being out of the public eye for nearly two months, said his military forces are implementing their plan to “liberate” the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, two areas recognized by Russia as independent republics but still formally parts of Ukraine. Russian officials said that they hit more than 1,200 Ukrainian positions, including military bases and weapons depots, over just the past two days, including targets in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

South of Kharkiv, Russian troops reportedly captured Kreminna, a town of about 19,000 residents on the western edge of the Luhansk region, marking the significant city to fall into the hands of the invaders since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the operation on Feb. 24. The capture of Kreminna is a step forward for the Kremlin, which has had to abandon hopes for a lightning victory in the war and has pulled back forces that failed to take Kyiv.

Russia’s retooled plan seeks to overrun eastern Ukraine and create a land bridge between the Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.

Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, acknowledged Russian forces were now in control of Kreminna, but said Ukrainian defenders had re-formed a defensive line to protect the strategic military hub of Karmatorsk in the Donetsk region.

“Our defenders had to withdraw,” Mr. Haidai said in a briefing Tuesday, the British newspaper The Guardian reported. “They have entrenched themselves in new positions and continue to fight the Russian army.”

Ukrainian officials, for their part, claimed a successful counterattack had reclaimed the city of Maryinka in the Donetsk region, forcing occupying Russian forces to give way. Russia had claimed it had captured the city a month ago

The port city of Mariupol, which is key to Russia’s ambitions and has been the site of immense human suffering and death, remains contested ground, with Ukrainian forces holding out in key parts of the city despite massive bombardments and airstrikes.

With Russia having given up on their attempts to capture Kyiv, U.S. defense officials are warning that Moscow likely learned from its mistakes in the northern theater and could embark on an even more brutal wartime strategy in the south and east that drives up the already staggering civilian death toll.

Ukrainian military officials described the events of Monday and Tuesday as a “new phase of war” in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged the change.

“Another phase of this operation is starting now,” he said Tuesday, as the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a total of 1,260 Ukrainian military targets were hit by artillery fire along the 300-mile front line in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions.

Russian troops ramped up their campaign in spite of growing calls for a temporary cease-fire to allow innocent civilians to escape the carnage. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a four-day Orthodox Holy Week pause in the hostilities, though Russian forces showed no signs of adhering to such a request.

“The four-day Easter period should be a moment to unite around saving lives and furthering dialogue to end the suffering in Ukraine,” the U.N. chief said. 

The White House said President Biden hosted another videoconference with fellow Western leaders to discuss the course of the war and reaffirming support for the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Among those on the call were British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Ukrainian armed forces chief Valeriy Zaluzhny said on his Telegram account Tuesday he had briefed U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley about the heavy fighting now underway in the country’s south and east, Ukraine’s Interfax news service reported.

Meanwhile, global financial leaders warned that the massive fallout from Russia’s invasion will stretch around the world and dramatically slow economic growth. 

“The war in Ukraine has triggered a costly humanitarian crisis that demands a peaceful resolution,” the International Monetary Fund said in an updated global outlook released Tuesday at its annual meeting in Washington. “At the same time, economic damage from the conflict will contribute to a significant slowdown in global growth in 2022 and add to inflation. Fuel and food prices have increased rapidly, hitting vulnerable populations in low-income countries hardest.”

Global growth rates, the 190-nation body said, are “projected to slow from an estimated 6.1% in 2021 to 3.6% in 2022 and 2023. This is 0.8 and 0.2 percentage points lower for 2022 and 2023 than projected in January.”

A global ‘game-changer’

Economics are just one consequence of the Russian military campaign. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled their country and have flooded into other European nations, sparking a potential crisis for governments already struggling with rising food costs and skyrocketing fuel prices.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has upended life across the continent, French Ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne said Tuesday. 

“For Europe, it means the comeback of war to Europe, the flow of refugees, more than 10% of the population of Ukraine now on the territory of member states of the European Union. … It is not only a shock, but it’s also a historical change which means it called for historical decisions on our side,” he said at a Hudson Institute event in Washington.

“This war is a game-changer,” he said.

Mr. Etienne said the European Union is evaluating plans to bring Ukraine into the fold, though he acknowledged the complexities of such a move, particularly on the economic front.

The strengthening of Ukraine’s ties to the West has been one clear result of the Russian invasion. Other European nations, such as Finland and Sweden, are now considering joining NATO, a move that would strengthen the alliance and deepen its presence on Moscow’s doorstep.

Such developments are the opposite of what Mr. Putin intended. His invasion was designed to both pull Ukraine away from the West and back into Moscow’s orbit, and to split NATO and expose underlying divisions between members of the Western military alliance.

Instead, the West has remained mostly united and has moved in concert with an unprecedented onslaught of economic sanctions that have shaken the Russian economy to its core.

At the same time, the clear failures of the Russian invasion — including poor logistical planning, a lack of food and supplies for troops, and other major missteps that ultimately doomed the battle for Kyiv — have sparked optimism in Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe that Mr. Putin’s attack could end in an embarrassing defeat.

Russian forces have concentrated in the east for a major offensive in the Donbas, but military analysts say that there’s still no guarantee their mission will succeed. Highly motivated Ukrainian defenders have proven more nimble and determined in clashes across the country so far, bolstered by an accelerating flood of weapons from the West.

“Russian forces did not take the operational pause that was likely necessary to reconstitute and properly integrate damaged units withdrawn from northeastern Ukraine into operations in eastern Ukraine,” researchers with the Institute for the Study of War wrote in a Monday analysis. “As we have assessed previously, Russian forces withdrawn from around Kyiv and going back to fight in Donbas have, at best, been patched up and filled out with soldiers from other damaged units, and the Russian military has few, if any, cohesive units not previously deployed to Ukraine to funnel into new operations.”

“Frequent reports of disastrously low Russian morale and continuing logistics challenges indicate the effective combat power of Russian units in eastern Ukraine is a fraction of their on-paper strength in numbers of battalion tactical groups,” they wrote. “Russian forces may certainly be able to wear down Ukrainian positions in eastern Ukraine through the heavy concentration of firepower and sheer weight of numbers, but likely at a high cost.”

Mr. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister who has been virtually absent from view for nearly all of the eight-week invasion, defended his country’s campaign in the Donbas during public comments Tuesday. His low profile had stoked speculation that either he had been ill or that he had been sidelined because of the checkered performance of Russian forces so far in the war.

Mr. Shoigu, 66, was shown Tuesday in a televised meeting telling Russian military commanders, “We are gradually implementing our plan to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.”

The Agence France-Presse news agency said Mr. Shoigu also accused the U.S. and NATO allies of “doing everything to drag out” the struggle through their arms shipments and other support for the government in Kyiv. 

— David R. Sands contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.