Vladimir Putin vowed Tuesday that Russia's bloody offensive in Ukraine would continue until its goals are fulfilled and insisted the campaign was going as planned, despite a major withdrawal in the face of stiff Ukrainian opposition and significant losses.
Russian troops, thwarted in their push toward Ukraine's capital, are now focusing on the eastern Donbas region, where Ukraine said Tuesday it was investigating a claim that a poisonous substance had been dropped on its troops. It was not clear what the substance might be, but Western officials warned that any use of chemical weapons by Russia would be a serious escalation of the already devastating war.
Russia invaded on Feb. 24, with the goal, according to Western officials, of taking Kyiv, the capital, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly regime. In the six weeks since, the ground advance stalled and Russian forces lost potentially thousands of fighters and were accused of killing civilians and other atrocities.
Putin insisted Tuesday that his invasion aimed to protect people in parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed rebels and to “ensure Russia’s own security.”
He said Russia “had no other choice” but to launch what he calls a “special military operation,” and vowed it would “continue until its full completion and the fulfillment of the tasks that have been set.”
For now, Putin's forces are gearing up for a major offensive in the Donbas, which has been torn by fighting between Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and where Russia has recognized the separatists’ claims of independence. Military strategists say Moscow appears to hope that local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favor its larger, better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to finally turn the tide in its favor.
The strategic port city of Mariupol is in that region and much of the city has been leveled in weeks of pummeling by Russian troops. The mayor said Monday that the siege has left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their bodies “carpeted through the streets.” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could surpass 20,000.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, acknowledged the challenges Ukrainian troops face in Mariupol. He said via Twitter that they remain blocked and are having issues with supplies, while Ukraine's president and generals “do everything possible (and impossible) to find a solution.”
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.