Russia said eyeing eastern Ukraine push; Kiev targets graft

Russia said eyeing eastern Ukraine push; Kiev targets graft

Russia said eyeing eastern Ukraine push; Kiev targets graft

Russia is mustering its military might in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, officials said Wednesday, in what Kiev suspects is preparation for an offensive as the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion approaches.

Also Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government continued its crackdown on alleged corruption with the dismissal of several high-ranking officials, prominent lawmaker David Arakhamia said.

Zelensky was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft. The latest allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kiev fight Moscow and as the Ukrainian government is introducing reforms so it can potentially join the European Union one day.

Ukraine's Security Service said on the Telegram messaging app that an operation on Wednesday targeted “corrupt officials who undermine the country’s economy and the stable functioning of the defense-industrial complex.” It identified one as a former Defense Ministry official accused of embezzling state funds through the purchase of nearly 3,000 bulletproof vests that would inadequately protect Ukrainian soldiers.

Summing up the day's focus on fighting corruption, Zelensky declared in his nightly video address Wednesday: “We will not allow anyone to weaken our state.”

On the battlefront, a Russian missile destroyed an apartment building and damaged seven others in the eastern Donetsk provincial city of Kramatorsk late Wednesday, killing at least three people and wounding at least 20, police said. Rescuers were searching the rubble for other victims. Russia has frequently attacked apartment buildings during the war, causing civilian casualties, although the Kremlin often denies such reports.

Zelensky used the attack to press again for more Western weapons: “No goal other than terror,” he said on Facebook. “The only way to stop Russian terrorism is to defeat it. By tanks. Fighter jets. Long-range missiles.”

Elsewhere, the Kremlin’s forces were expelling residents near the Russian-held parts of the front line so they can't tell Ukrainian artillery forces about Russian troop deployments, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said.

“There is an active transfer of (Russian troops) to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Haidai said.

The Institute for the Study of War predicted “an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months.” Some predict it will coincide with the invasion anniversary on Feb. 24.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported Wednesday that Russia was also concentrating in neighboring Donetsk province, especially in its bid to capture the key city of Bakhmut.

Donetsk and Luhansk provinces make up the Donbas, an industrial region bordering Russia that President Vladimir Putin identified as a goal for takeover from the war’s outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Russian shelling of Bakhmut, from which most residents have fled while others shelter in cellars, killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 on Tuesday, Ukraine’s presidential office said.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko posted images of the shelling aftermath, showing huge black holes in residential buildings in the embattled city, reporting that Russia is deploying more troops.

Donetsk was one of four provinces that Russia illegally annexed in the fall, but controls only about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities. Russian forces have been trying for months to capture Bakhmut.

Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around the city. But the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-controlled paramilitary group headed by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, on Wednesday denied that Bakhmut was encircled. “When the city is taken, you will certainly know about it,” Prigozhin said in an online post.

Ukraine is keen to secure more Western military aid to fend off much larger Russian forces. It has already won pledges of tanks and now wants more.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described media reports about planned new U.S. military assistance to Ukraine as “a direct path to inciting tensions and taking the escalation to a new level.”

“It will require additional efforts on our part, but it won’t change the course of events,” he told reporters.