KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine was bracing to battle for control of its industrial east and appealing for more help from the West after Russian forces withdrew from the shattered outskirts of Kyiv to regroup.
Authorities were urging people to immediately evacuate from the Donbas region before Russia intensifies its offensive. In Brussels, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged NATO to provide more weapons for his war-torn country to help prevent further atrocities like those reported in the city of Bucha.
“My agenda is very simple… it’s weapons, weapons and weapons,” Kuleba said as he arrived at NATO headquarters Thursday for talks with the military organization’s foreign ministers about Ukraine's fight against Russia's invasion.
“We know how to fight. We know how to win. But without sustainable and sufficient supplies requested by Ukraine, these wins will be accompanied by enormous sacrifices,” Kuleba said. “The more weapons we get and the sooner they arrive in Ukraine, the more human lives will be saved.”
Some NATO members worry that they may be Russia’s next target but the alliance is striving to avoid moves that might pull countries directly into the conflict.
A U.S. defense official speaking on condition of anonymity said Russia had pulled all of its estimated 24,000 or more troops from the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas in the north, sending them into Belarus or Russia to resupply and reorganize, probably to return to fight in the east.
Growing numbers of Putin’s troops, along with mercenaries, have been reported moving into the Donbas. “Later, people will come under fire,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in urging civilians to evacuate from the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region, “and we won’t be able to do anything to help them.”
Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas since 2014. Ahead of its Feb. 24 invasion, Moscow recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states.
Another Western official, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence estimates, said it may take Russia’s battle-damaged forces as much as a month to regroup for a major push on eastern Ukraine.
In his nightly address Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also warned Russia's military is gearing up for a new offensive in the east.
Ukraine, too, was preparing for battle, he said.
“We will fight and we will not retreat,” he said. “We will seek all possible options to defend ourselves until Russia begins to seriously seek peace. This is our land. This is our future. And we won’t give them up.”
In areas north of the capital, Ukrainian officials were gathering evidence of Russian atrocities amid signs Moscow’s troops killed people indiscriminately before retreating.
Ukrainian authorities said the bodies of least 410 civilians were found in towns around Kyiv, victims of what Zelenskyy has portrayed as a Russian campaign of murder, rape, dismemberment and torture. Some victims had apparently been shot at close range. Some were found with their hands bound.
Zelenskyy accused Russia of interfering with an international investigation into possible war crimes by removing corpses and trying to hide other evidence in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv.
“We have information that the Russian troops have changed tactics and are trying to remove the dead people, the dead Ukrainians, from the streets and cellars of territory they occupied,” he said during his latest video address. “This is only an attempt to hide the evidence and nothing more.”
Switching from Ukrainian to Russian, Zelenskyy urged ordinary Russians “to somehow confront the Russian repressive machine” instead of being “equated with the Nazis for the rest of your life.”
He called on Russians to demand an end to the war, “if you have even a little shame about what the Russian military is doing in Ukraine.”
In reaction to the alleged atrocities outside Kyiv, the U.S. announced sanctions against Putin’s two adult daughters and said it is toughening penalties against Russian banks. Britain banned investment in Russia and pledged to end its dependence on Russian coal and oil by the end of the year.
The U.S. Senate planned to take up legislation Thursday to end normal trade relations with Russia and to codify President Joe Biden’s executive action banning imports of Russian oil. The trade suspension would allow Biden to enact higher tariffs on certain Russian imports.
The European Union is also expected to take additional punitive measures, including an embargo on coal.
The Kremlin has insisted its troops have committed no war crimes and alleged the images out of Bucha were staged by the Ukrainians.
Bodies were still being collected in the city. On Wednesday, The Associated Press saw two in a house in a silent neighborhood. From time to time there was the muffled boom of workers clearing the town of mines and other unexploded ordnance.
Workers at a cemetery began to load more than 60 bodies into a grocery shipping truck for transport to a facility for further investigation.
Police said they found at least 20 bodies in the Makariv area west of Kyiv. In the village of Andriivka, residents said the Russians arrived in early March. They took locals’ phones and detained and then released some people. Others met unknown fates. Some described sheltering for weeks in cellars normally used for storing vegetables.
“First we were scared, now we are hysterical,” said Valentyna Klymenko, 64. She said she, her husband and two neighbors weathered the siege by sleeping on stacks of potatoes covered with a mattress and blankets. “We didn’t cry at first. Now we are crying.”
In the southern port city of Mariupol, Mayor Vadym Boichenko said that of the more than 5,000 civilians killed during weeks of Russian bombardment and street fighting, 210 were children. Russian forces bombed hospitals, including one where 50 people burned to death, he said.
Boichenko said more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed. The attacks on the strategic city on the Sea of Azov have cut off food, water, fuel and medicine and pulverized homes and businesses.
British defense officials said 160,000 people remained trapped in the city, which had a prewar population of 430,000. A humanitarian relief convoy accompanied by the Red Cross has been trying for days without success to get into the city.
Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to secure a continuous land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The United States and the United Kingdom boycotted an informal meeting Wednesday of the U.N. Security Council called by Russia to press its baseless claims that the U.S. has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine. Several such Russian moves have led Western countries to accuse Moscow of using the U.N. as a platform for disinformation to divert attention from the war.
Russia's allegations have previously been debunked. Ukraine does own and operate a network of biological labs that have received funding and research support from the U.S. and are not a secret. The labs are part of a program that aims to reduce the likelihood of deadly outbreaks, whether natural or manufactured.
The U.S. efforts date to work in the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s program for weapons of mass destruction.
Oleksandr Stashevskyi and Cara Anna in Bucha, Ukraine, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine