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Russia's intensified offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region reflects "an obvious policy of genocide," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address on Thursday.
"The current offensive of the occupiers in Donbas can make the region uninhabited," Zelensky said. "They want to burn Popasna, Bakhmut, Lyman, Lysychansk and Severodonetsk to ashes. Like Volnovakha, like Mariupol."
In cities closer to the Russian border like Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian forces "gather everyone they can to fill the place of those killed and wounded in the occupation contingent," Zelensky said.
"All this, including the deportation of our people and the mass killings of civilians, is an obvious policy of genocide pursued by Russia."
Zelensky said putting pressure on Russia "is literally a matter of saving lives" and that every delay, dispute or proposal to "appease" Russia leads to "new killed Ukrainians" and new threats to everyone on the continent.
Nine people, including a five-month-old baby, were killed in Kharkiv on Thursday amid "dense shelling" on residential areas near the city center, according to Oleh Synyehubov, head of the Kharkiv region military administration.
Among those killed was “a family who was simply walking down the street — a man was holding his five-month-old baby in his hands, whom he died holding. (The) mother of this baby is severely wounded and is now in the hospital,” Synyehubov said.
He also described the artillery used, and said the targeting of residential areas in Ukraine's second-largest city could only be for the purpose of “terrorizing” local residents.
“The enemy shelled with MLRS SMERCH and URAGAN and with artillery, modification of which is being established now by our military experts. According to the available data. the shelling was conducted from the North of the oblast, where our troops are holding their positions and slowly pushing the enemy away to the borders. This was a solely residential area, so the aim of this shelling could only be terrorizing the local residents," he said.
The official added that it was the Shevchenkivskyi and Kyivskyi districts of Kharkiv that were “densely shelled.” He said in addition to those killed, 19 were injured, among them a nine-year-old child.
“As of now our armed forces holding their positions firmly and there is no question about possible seizure of Kharkiv city,” he said.
Ukraine's most urgent need is for multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to counter Russian superiority in heavy weaponry, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
The military situation in the eastern regions is "as dire as people say — even worse than people say," Kuleba said Thursday in Twitter live Q and A from Poland.
The only response that would work, he said, was with "more heavy weapons. Without these, we won't be able to push them back."
He called Washington's decision on this "crucial."
CNN has learned that the Biden administration is preparing to step up the kind of weaponry it is offering Ukraine by sending advanced, long-range rocket systems as they become the top request from Ukrainian officials, according to multiple officials.
The administration is leaning toward sending the systems as part of a larger package of military and security assistance to Ukraine, which could be announced as soon as next week.
In addition to the foreign minister, other senior Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, have pleaded in recent weeks for the US and its allies to provide the MLRS. The US-made weapon systems can fire a barrage of rockets hundreds of kilometers — much farther than any of the systems Ukraine already has — which the Ukrainians argue could be a gamechanger in their war against Russia.
Another system Ukraine has asked for is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, a lighter wheeled system capable of firing many of the same types of ammunition as MLRS.
Russia has in recent weeks pummeled Ukraine in the east, where Ukraine is outmanned and outgunned, Ukrainian officials have said.
The Biden administration wavered for weeks, however, on whether to send the systems, amid concerns raised within the National Security Council that Ukraine could use the systems to carry out offensive attacks inside Russia, officials said.
The issue was at the top of the agenda at last week's two meetings at the White House where deputy Cabinet members convened to discuss national security policy, officials said. At the heart of the matter was the same concern the administration has grappled with since the start of the war — whether sending increasingly heavy weaponry to Ukraine will be viewed by Russia as a provocation that could trigger some kind of retaliation against the US.
Ukraine is already believed to have carried out numerous cross-border strikes inside Russia, which Ukrainian officials neither confirm nor deny. Russian officials have said publicly that any threat to their homeland would constitute a major escalation and have said that western countries are making themselves a legitimate target in the war by continuing to arm the Ukrainians.
Another major concern inside the Biden administration had been whether the US could afford to give away so many high-end weapons drawn from the military's stockpiles, the sources said.
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Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been processed through a series of Russian "filtration camps" in eastern Ukraine and sent into Russia as part of a systemized program of forced removal, according to four sources familiar with the latest Western intelligence — an estimate far higher than US officials have publicly disclosed.
After being detained in camps operated by Russian intelligence officials, many Ukrainians are then forcibly relocated to economically depressed areas in Russia, in some cases thousands of miles from their homes, and often left with no means of returning, sources said.
Although some Ukrainians have voluntarily entered filtration camps to try to escape the fighting by entering Russia, many have been picked up against their will at check points and in bomb shelters. After spending an average of around three weeks at the camps — where sources and eyewitnesses say they are held in inhuman conditions, interrogated and sometimes tortured — some are sent across the border into Russia and given state documentation.
From checkpoints in Rostov and other Russian towns, many Ukrainians are then relocated to far-flung corners across Russia, the sources said. In some cases, Ukrainians have been sent to Sakhalin Island, a distant spit in the Pacific Ocean on Russia's far east — 10,000 miles from the Ukrainian border. If they are fortunate, sources tell CNN, Russia will provide housing in residential areas and perhaps a Russian SIM card and a small amount of money.
Others are simply dropped off with nothing and expected to survive on their own. Still other Ukrainians are stuck in filtration camps inside Russia, close to their own homes, with no way to leave, other sources added.
Taken together, western intelligence reporting described by CNN sources offers new details that go beyond scattered eyewitness accounts from the region and paints a disturbing picture of a comprehensive resettlement process.
Claims of cultural genocide: It's all part of Russia's effort to cement political control over occupied areas, sources say — in part by eliminating Ukrainians believed to be sympathetic to Kyiv and in part by diminishing the Ukrainian national identity through depopulation and what some human rights activists term "cultural genocide." It's an indiscriminate system that Russia has employed before, notably during both Chechen wars.
Intelligence officials believe all Ukrainians entering Russia are being processed through these filtration camps. Top US diplomats have already publicly condemned the practice and said these actions constitute war crimes.
"Ukrainians do not necessarily have to be thrown on a back of a truck but many are put in a situation where they don't have a choice: You get on the bus and go to filtration and then to Russia or you die in the shelling," said Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia associate director for Human Rights Watch. "These are forced transfers forbidden under the laws of war."
Russia's Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.
It's difficult to confirm precise numbers, and officially, Western estimates vary from tens of thousands to 1 million people.
But even the more conservative estimates hint at a massive program of forced dislocation on a staggering scale. And even as US officials have publicly cited much lower numbers, the sources say that in reality, it's clear that at least hundreds of thousands of people have been pushed through the camp system and sent to Russia.
Late last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian armed forces are "doing everything to prevent deaths among the civilian population. Since the beginning of the special military operation, more than 1.37 million people have been evacuated from the dangerous regions of the people's republic, as well as from Ukraine to Russia."
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Ukraine's armed forces have acknowledged that Russian forces have made further advances in Donetsk region — capturing one district within 10 miles (about 16 kilometers) of the important town of Bakhmut.
In an operational update Thursday, the armed forces' general staff said that while several Russian efforts to advance had been thwarted, "in the directions of Pokrovsky and Klynove, the enemy has partial success, capturing the village of Midna Ruda."
Midna Ruda is some 10 miles (about 16 kilometers) southeast of Bakhmut, which has come under heavier artillery fire in the last week. Bakhmut is on a key resupply route for Ukrainian units on the frontlines, which would potentially be cut off by further Russian advances.
"In the Donetsk direction, the enemy is shelling our troops, launching missile strikes, conducting surveillance, and increasing air support," the general staff said.
The general staff also said that other Russian efforts to push west towards the Donetsk region border had been repulsed. It said the Russians continued to bombard Ukrainian troops south of the town of Lyman, much of which fell into Russian hands Tuesday. Video Wednesday showed the Russian flag flying above the town's municipal offices.
According to the Ukrainians, Russian efforts to advance into Donetsk from the north continue to be frustrated. The front lines in the area have changed little in recent weeks. The general staff said that "with the support of artillery, the enemy carried out an offensive in the direction of the village of Bohorodychne, had no success, and retreated to previous positions."
Further east, as Ukrainian forces cling onto defensive positions around Severodonetsk, the general staff said Russian forces had enjoyed "partial success" in making slight advances on the ground.
Meanwhile in the south: The general staff said that Russian units in the Zaporizhzhia region were being reinforced by Soviet-era T62 tanks, which appear to have been brought out of storage.
Separately, the Ukrainian military released video and quotes from soldiers operating the US M777 howitzers. They praise its accuracy and range, with one saying, "The enemy feels the effectiveness of our artillery every day and every hour. We are doing everything possible and impossible to surpress and eliminate the enemy and give our infantry a chance for a counter-offensive to liberate our territories."
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has said that the town of Lyman in Donetsk region has fallen to the Russians, "according to unverified reports."
"The Russian army — this must be checked — captured it," Arestovych told Ukrainian television.
In a rare admission, Arestovych also said: "The way they captured it shows that there is still a talented commander who correctly organized the operation, which shows the increased level of operational control and tactical skill of the Russian army."
CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko contributed reporting to this post.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi held a telephone call on Thursday and discussed the situation in Ukraine and the issue of global food security, according to readouts of the call from both the governments.
The Italian readout released following the call said the discussion between the two leaders focused on the situation in Ukraine and “efforts to find a shared solution to the ongoing food crisis and its serious repercussions on the poorest countries in the world.”
The Kremlin in its readout said that Putin emphasized that Moscow is ready to make a “significant contribution” to avoid the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizers, if the West lifts “politically motivated restrictions” on Russia.
“Noting the groundlessness of accusations with the supply of agricultural products to world markets, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the fact that the difficulties that have arisen are related, among other things, to disruptions in the operation of production and logistics chains, as well as the financial policy of Western countries during the coronavirus pandemic. The situation was aggravated due to anti-Russian restrictions imposed by the United States and the European Union,” the Kremlin statement said.
Putin also informed Draghi about the “ongoing work to establish a peaceful life in the liberated cities of Donbas,” the Kremlin said, adding the Russian leader also gave “fundamental assessments of the negotiation process frozen by Kyiv."
“When discussing energy security issues, the intention of the Russian side to continue to ensure uninterrupted supplies of natural gas to Italy at prices fixed in contracts was confirmed,” it said.
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin visited Kyiv — as well as the cities of Irpin and Bucha — Thursday and meet with local residents and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.
She announced plans for additional support for Ukraine, including an increase in arms deliveries.
After hearing testimonies about alleged atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, Marin emphasized that Finland supports Ukraine and the International Criminal Court bringing the perpetrators to justice, according to a Finnish government statement, and that there will be “no room for impunity."
During the visit, Marin strongly condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, calling them "a blatant violation of the UN Charter and international law," the statement said.
“It is important for the European Union to be united, bold and determined in the face of Russia’s invasion,” Marin stressed, adding that “it is important to create concrete steps for Ukraine to become an EU Member State."
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions from the West have sent oil prices skyrocketing, lifting gasoline and diesel prices in the United States to unprecedented levels. Natural gas prices also have climbed around the world.
After the West imposed tough penalties on Russia, Putin warned that “unfriendly” nationswould need to pay for crucial Russian shipments of natural gas in rubles instead of euros. Following payment disputes, Russia has turned off the flow gas to Finland, Bulgaria and Poland.
“I wouldn’t trust them,” US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN in response to a question about whether Russia will ever again be considered a reliable energy supplier. “They have to prove they are a reliable partner and they’re certainly not doing that.”
“They are weaponizing energy, which is another reason why as a nation, we should move to energy sources that cannot be weaponized,” Granholm said while speaking from a General Electric wind turbine testing facility in New Orleans.
Of course, Russia could argue that the West is also weaponizing energy. The United States and other countries have banned imports of Russian oil, natural gas and coal, while Europe is debating similar steps.
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