Kyiv, Ukraine — As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for tribunal-style justice over a deadly strike at a train station in eastern Ukraine, frightened civilians fled the region in the thousands on Saturday, which is expected to be the next major battleground in more than 6 weeks will -old war.
Zelenskyi predicted a “hard fight” in the east, where Russian troops would be massing.
“We believe in this fight and our victory,” he said at a press conference in the capital Kyiv, along with visiting Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Saturday.
Amid a wave of international condemnation and fresh sanctions, Russia has denied responsibility for Friday’s rocket attack in the town of Kramatorsk that killed at least 52 people, Ukrainian officials said. But Western military officials confirmed that Moscow’s forces were behind the attack.
In his night speech, Selenskyj warned that those responsible for the rail strike would expect consequences at all planning levels.
“This is another war crime by Russia for which all those involved will be held accountable,” the president said. Investigators, he explained, would establish “who did what, who gave orders, where the missile came from, who carried it, who gave the order and how the strike was coordinated.”
Ukrainian officials also continue to meticulously document gruesome forensic evidence of atrocities against civilians in areas near Kyiv that Russian forces occupied for about a month before calling off a failed attempt to capture the city.
In a sign that some normality is returning to the capital following Russia’s eastward move, some Western diplomats are beginning to backtrack.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying on Saturday that Italy would reopen its embassy in Kyiv later this month, after Easter. The European Union has already said its head of delegation is back in the capital to re-establish the EU’s diplomatic presence.
But the relative calm in the capital region contrasted with a growing sense of concern and impending danger in the separatist Donbass region in the east of the country.
After the devastating bombardment in Kramatorsk, which left crumpled bodies strewn on the platforms, Ukraine’s National Railway Service rushed people out of the area, using nearby towns as starting points for the exodus.
Despite fears that civilians trying to flee the east would be targeted again, Ukrainian officials repeatedly appealed to non-combatants to flee if they could.
Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said Saturday that evacuation buses would take people to neighboring cities like Sloviansk, where they could catch trains bound for safer parts of the country.
“The railways don’t stop keeping everyone safe,” the railway operator said in a statement via messaging app Telegram. Departures would continue from stations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, it said.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said on public television that Russia was “assembling forces for an offensive” and shelling had intensified, making it imperative that civilians seek refuge elsewhere.
The next phase of fighting is likely to increase in intensity, Western officials said. At the Pentagon on Friday, a senior US official predicted a metaphorical “knife fight,” saying the fight would be “very bloody and very ugly.”
There were increasing signs that Russia was laying the foundation for intensified fighting in the east by attacking Ukraine’s military infrastructure.
Russia’s military said Saturday that its forces destroyed an ammunition depot at Myhorod airbase in Ukraine’s central-eastern Poltava region and claimed to have destroyed a Ukrainian fighter jet and helicopter in the strike. A Defense Ministry spokesman was also quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying another ammunition dump had been dug near the city of Novomoskovsk in the Dnipro region.
With up to a fifth of Russia’s original invading force believed to have been disabled, Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely determined to seize strategic parts of Ukraine, including the eastern industrial heartland and parts of the southern coast, to end the invasion as such to represent a victory, analysts say.
At home, Putin has sought to quell dissent and criminalize anti-war activity. His Justice Department said it had revoked the registrations of a dozen international organizations, including human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The groups vowed to continue their work elsewhere.
With around a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people displaced from their homes, more than 4 million have fled to neighboring countries. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said in Warsaw, Poland on Saturday that a global fundraiser for refugees from war in Ukraine had raised $11 billion.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk on Saturday reported renewed efforts to help civilians exit the besieged southern port of Mariupol by private transport. The city has been hit by Russian air raids since the first days of the war.
Ukrainian officials have been citing reports for weeks that Moscow has been kidnapping evacuees from Mariupol to Russia under the guise of humanitarian intervention. On Saturday, Russia’s RIA news agency quoted the Defense Ministry as saying dozens of people were “moved to safe places” out of the city on Friday.
According to Ukrainian officials, more than 30,000 people from Mariupol were “illegally” deported to Russia.
Control of Mariupol is seen as a special prize for Russia, as capturing the city would allow the creation of a land corridor from Russia and Russian-controlled territories to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia captured eight years ago.
According to a report by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, Ukrainian forces in parts of southwestern and eastern Mariupol “continued to withstand Russian attacks.”
Russian naval forces have launched cruise missiles to support military operations around Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Mykolaiv near the Black Sea, British military intelligence said in an assessment on Saturday.
Despite denials from Moscow that it was intentionally targeting non-combatants, British officials said Russia was continuing its attacks on civilians and was likely to carry out more attacks like the one in Kramatorsk.
(McDonnell reported from Kyiv and King from Budapest, Hungary.)