KREMENCHUK – Russian forces battled Wednesday to surround the Ukrainian military’s last stronghold in a long-contested eastern province, as shock reverberated from a Russian airstrike on a shopping mall that killed at least 18 in the center of the country two days earlier.
Moscow’s battle to wrest the entire Donbas region from Ukraine saw Russian forces pushing toward two villages south of Lysychansk while Ukrainian troops fought to prevent their encirclement.
Britain’s defense ministry said Russian forces were making “incremental advances” in their offensive to capture Lysychansk, the last city in the Luhansk province under Ukrainian control following the retreat of Ukraine's forces from the neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk.
Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.
The latest assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said the Ukrainians were likely in a fighting withdrawal to seek more defensible positions while draining the Russian forces of manpower and resources.
Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Russia “may think time is on its side” due to the escalating costs borne by the West and fatigue as the war grows longer. The most likely scenario predicted by American intelligence, Haines said, is a “grinding struggle” in which Russia consolidates its hold over southern Ukraine by the fall.
The U.S. correctly predicted Russia would invade Ukraine in February, but was wrong in assessing that it would quickly seize Kyiv. Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Haines said Russian President Vladimir Putin “has effectively the same political goals that he had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine” and push it away from NATO.
“We perceive a disconnect between Putin’s near-term military objectives in this area and his military’s capacity, a kind of mismatch between his ambitions and what the military is able to accomplish,” Haines said.
Putin also said his goals in Ukraine have not changed since the start of the war. He said they were “the liberation of the Donbas, the protection of these people and the creation of conditions that would guarantee the security of Russia itself.” He made no mention of his original stated goals to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
He denied Russia adjusted its strategy after failing to take Kyiv. “As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the marks that were set for them for a certain stage of this combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin said at a news conference in Turkmenistan.
Meanwhile, crews continued to search through the rubble of the shopping mall in Kremenchuk where Ukrainian authorities say 20 people remain missing.
Ukrainian State Emergency Services press officer Svitlana Rybalko told The Associated Press that along with the 18 people killed, investigators found fragments of eight more bodies. It was not immediately clear whether that meant there were more victims. A number of survivors suffered severed limbs.
“The police cannot say for sure how many (victims) there are. So we are finding not the bodies but the fragments of bodies," Rybalko said. "Now we are clearing at the very epicenter of the blast. Here, we practically cannot find bodies as such.”
Several families stood by what was left of the Amstor shopping center Wednesday morning in hope of finding missing loved ones.
“This is pure genocide,” local resident Tatiana Chernyshova said while going to lay flowers at the site. “Such things cannot happen in the 21st century."
“We need to engage everyone to help stop the war, help us fight these scum — these Russian aggressors," Chernyshova said.
Psychologists working at the site with families said they were trying to help people come to terms with their loss.
“We are trying to help them release their emotions now, as later it becomes harder and much more painful,” said one psychologist, who did not give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
After the attack on the mall, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of becoming a “terrorist” state. On Wednesday, he reproached NATO for not embracing or equipping his embattled country more fully.
“The open-door policy of NATO shouldn’t resemble old turnstiles on Kyiv’s subway, which stay open but close when you approach them until you pay,” Zelenskyy told NATO leaders meeting in Madrid, speaking by video link. “Hasn’t Ukraine paid enough? Hasn’t our contribution to defending Europe and the entire civilization been sufficient?”
He asked for more modern artillery systems and other weapons and warned the NATO leaders they either had to provide Ukraine with the help it needed to defeat Russia or “face a delayed war between Russia and yourself.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday dismissed what she claimed was the Ukrainian government’s “blatant provocation” in trying to blame the mall missile strike on Russia's military.
Britain’s defense ministry said there was a “realistic possibility” that the mall strike “was intended to hit a nearby infrastructure target.”
“Russian planners highly likely remain willing to accept a high level of collateral damage when they perceive military necessity in striking a target,” the ministry said. “It is almost certain that Russia will continue to conduct strikes in an effort to interdict the resupplying of Ukrainian front-line forces.”
Russia’s military also is experiencing a shortage of more modern precision strike weapons, which is compounding civilian casualties, the British ministry said.
In southern Ukraine, a Russian missile strike on a multi-story apartment building Wednesday in the city of Mykolaiv killed at least four people and injured five, regional governor Vitaliy Kim said. Mykolaiv is a major port and seizing it — as well as Odesa farther west — would be key to Russia's objective of cutting off Ukraine from its Black Sea coast.
Russia's defense ministry said in a statement that the missile strike on Mykolaiv targeted a base for training “foreign mercenaries," as well as ammunition depots.
In other developments Wednesday:
— A senior Russian lawmaker warned that Lithuania’s refusal to allow some goods targeted by European Union sanctions through to Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad could trigger a military confrontation.
The statement by Vladimir Dzhabarov, a deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, followed the Kremlin’s warning that it will retaliate against restrictions of transit to Kaliningrad. The region borders EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania.
— Russia’s foreign ministry summoned Norway’s charge d’affaires to protest Oslo’s blocking of a shipment of supplies to a Russian coal-mining town in the Svalbard islands.
Although the Svalbards are Norwegian territory, a 1920 treaty allows all signatory countries the right to exploit its natural resources. Russia operates a coal mine in Barentsburg, a settlement of about 450 people, which relies on shipments from the mainland of food, machinery and other supplies. Norway imposed sanctions on shipments from Russia in April.
— Ukrainian military intelligence says that in the largest prisoner swap since the start of the war 144 Ukrainian troops were released from Russian captivity. Of those released, 95 were involved in defending the Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine’s devastated southern city of Mariupol before Russian forces captured it weeks ago. Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader in Donetsk, said an equal number of soldiers was released by both sides.
— European Union leaders approved a 600-million euro ($631 million) package to address food security issues brought on by the Ukrainian war in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
— British businessman Richard Branson met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv and also visited the Hostomel airport outside the city. Zelenskyy said Branson, whose Virgin Group includes an airline, may be interested in rebuilding the airport, which was badly damaged early in the war.
— Britain is imposing sanctions on Russia’s second-richest man and on a cousin of Putin's. Vladimir Potanin, owner of the Interross conglomerate, has continued to amass wealth while backing Putin, acquiring Rosbank and shares in Tinkoff Bankonith in the period following the invasion of Ukraine, a U.K. government statement said Wednesday.
The statement said Putin’s cousin, Anna Tsivileva, and her husband, Sergey Tsivilev, have “significantly benefited” from their relationship with Putin. Tsivileva is president of the JSC Kolmar Group coal mining company, and Tsivilev is governor of the coal-rich Kemerovo region.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Frank Griffiths and Sylvia Hui in London, Maria Grazia Murru in Kyiv, Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.