Russia and Ukraine step up their attacks amid signs a counteroffensive is near

Signs of an impending Ukrainian counter-offensive mounted on Monday, with increased military strikes on both sides, Russian forces pushing into defensive positions and even an unexplained explosion that blew a supply train across the border into Russia off its tracks.

Defense Minister of Ukraine Oleksii Reznikov said in an appearance on national television that the military was “reaching the finish line” in preparations for a counteroffensive and that commanders would decide “how, where and when.”

The day began with Russia launching wide-ranging airstrikes over Ukraine, its second wide-ranging attack in four days.

In Pavlograd, a city in central Ukraine, dozens of buildings were damaged, including schools and apartment buildings, local officials said, and rocket attacks sparked a massive fire that lit up the night sky. In Kiev and elsewhere, explosions echoed in the landscape before sunrise as air defenses shot down 15 of 18 Russian cruise missiles, according to the Ukrainian military.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed its barrage was “a long-range, high-precision air- and sea-launched missile attack on Ukrainian military-industrial complex facilities.” But at least 34 people, including five children, were injured in Pavlograd, local officials said.

But even as Moscow ramped up its attacks, its forces are preparing for a counteroffensive, moving to defensive positions in the south, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.

Britain’s Defense Intelligence Service said on Monday that Russia had “for many decades built some of the most extensive systems of military defenses seen anywhere in the world,” not only near the front lines, but also “deep in the interior of areas that Russia currently controlled”.

And in Washington, White House officials released new estimates that the Russian military has suffered a staggering 20,000 deaths in Ukraine since December alone.

As the warring armies emerge from a winter of heavy death but little progress, Ukrainian forces, like the Russians, are increasing the pressure. There were increasing reports of attacks deep behind enemy lines in Russian-held areas, with the apparent aim of demoting Russian forces ahead of a much-anticipated much larger battle.

By the end of the day, Ukraine reported that its pilots had conducted four attacks on areas where enemy personnel were concentrated. They said rocket and artillery fire hit five areas where weapons and military equipment were concentrated, as well as an ammunition depot and a logistics center.

Ukrainians had less to say about an explosion that reportedly derailed a freight train in Russia’s Bryansk region on Monday, the latest in a string of apparent attacks on the border area with Ukraine.

Photos and videos circulating on social media showed a large blazing fire and a tilted train with at least one carriage lying on its side. Rybar, an influential Russian wartime military blog that published one of the videos, said wagons loaded with oil products and timber were lying on their sides.

The Russian railway company said in a statement that “an intrusion by unauthorized persons” set fire to the locomotive and blocked traffic on the railway line. The governor of the Bryansk region blamed an “unidentified explosive device” in a post on the messaging app Telegram. He did not say who was responsible.

Ukraine generally maintains a policy of strategic obscurity regarding strikes on Russian territory, but its officials have reserved the right to attack targets in Russia they say are being used to attack Ukrainian towns and cities.

Ukrainian officials were divided on Monday over how citizens living in cities now controlled by the Russians should deal with mounting pressure from the Kremlin to recognize its authority.

Last week, Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin signed an edict declaring that all Ukrainians living in occupied territories who refuse Russian passports could be resettled from their homes, the latest sign of the Kremlin’s commitment to keeping areas of Ukraine under Russian control to Russify control.

Mr Putin made it clear that he views the occupied territories as part of Russia and continued to use nationalist rhetoric to justify the war. “These are our historic lands and these people are our indigenous people,” he said.

Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, called on Ukrainians living under Russian occupation to work together for their own safety. “Take a pass, survive, wait until we liberate this area,” he said.

But on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereschuk offered a different message.

“Don’t take Russian passports with you,” she said, urging citizens “not to cooperate with the occupying forces.”

Ms Vereshuk agreed with Mr Lubinets on one point: “Wait for the armed forces of Ukraine,” she said.

Reporting was contributed by Malachy Browne, Zolan Kanno Youngs, Kassandra Vinograd, Ivan Nekhepurenko And Anatoly Kurmanayev.

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