US intelligence helped Ukraine target Russian generals
Russian ceasefire to begin at besieged Mariupol steel plant
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"The United States provides battlefield intelligence to help the Ukrainians defend their country," NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson told AFP in an email.
The heavy loss of high-ranking Russian military officers has stunned Western security officials, who last confirmed an official tally of seven generals in late March, though Ukraine has since announced more.
In March, Western officials had cited low morale as a reason Russian generals would be so close to the front.
They also pointed to potential communications and logistics issues on the Russian side, which could lead senior officers to use unencrypted channels and expose themselves to Ukrainian forces.
But the report by the New York Times points to direct assistance from the United States and other Western intelligence services as a major factor in the Ukrainian success.
The daily said the United States had provided details on the Russian military's mobile headquarters, which frequently change location, and that Ukrainian forces used that information in tandem with their own to conduct attacks on senior Russian officers.
President Joe Biden's administration has kept the military intelligence it is providing to Ukraine under wraps out of concern it could compromise its sources as well as be taken as a sign by Russia of direct hostility.
Earlier in the conflict, the Pentagon was similarly cautious about noting that only "defensive" weapons and equipment were being provided to Ukraine.
But it has since announced shipments of offensive weapons like heavy artillery, helicopters and attack drones.
It has also talked of training Ukrainian troops, including in Germany, to use the weapons they are receiving.
"We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine," US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said after a visit to Kyiv in late April.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to request for comment on the Times report.
Russian ceasefire to begin at besieged Mariupol steel plant
A Russian-announced ceasefire was due to begin Thursday at the besieged steel plant in the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol, to allow civilians to flee even as its defenders vowed to fight to the end.
The three-day halt in Russia's attack on the Azovstal steelworks was announced as EU member states debated a proposed ban on Russian oil, the bloc's toughest move yet over Moscow's invasion of its neighbour.
The EU also pledged to "significantly increase" support for Ukrainian neighbour Moldova, where a series of attacks in a Russia-backed separatist region has sparked fears a war that has killed thousands could spread more than two months after it began.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said the bloc would "phase out Russian supply of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of the year", a move that would still not touch its huge gas exports.
But within hours, Hungary -- whose populist leader Viktor Orban is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's few EU partners -- said it could not support the plan "in this form", as it would "completely destroy" the security of its energy supply.
Biden said Wednesday he was "open" to imposing more sanctions on Russia and would be discussing measures with allies from the Group of Seven democracies in the coming days.
- Azovstal fights on -
After failing to capture Kyiv, Russia's military campaign is now focused on uniting separatist pro-Russian areas in the east with Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
The strategic southern port of Mariupol has become an emblem of the suffering of the war, with an untold number of dead and basic supplies cut off as Moscow carried out a scorched-earth campaign to wrest control.
The last Ukrainian soldiers are holding out at the Azovstal steelworks, where Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said there was heavy fighting Wednesday.
Russia was attacking with heavy artillery, tanks, planes and ships off the coast, he told Ukrainian television.
"There are local residents there, civilians -- hundreds of them there," he added. "There are children waiting for rescue. There are more than 30 kids."
"The Russian armed forces will open a humanitarian corridor from 08:00 to 18:00 Moscow time (0500 to 1500 GMT) on May 5, 6 and 7 from the site of the Azovstal metallurgical plant to evacuate civilians," the ministry said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price voiced scepticism about the ceasefire, saying Moscow had repeatedly resumed shelling after announcing pauses.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the nationalist Azov regiment, meanwhile, vowed to never surrender the plant.
"The situation is extremely hard. However, we will continue carrying out the order to keep up our defences no matter what," he said in a video.
- 'It takes time' -
The second stage of Mariupol evacuation operations had brought 344 newly freed people to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday.
"They will all receive the necessary help, they will all receive the most attentive care from the government," Zelensky said in a video address, adding the looming Azovstal ceasefire was desperately needed to free trapped civilians.
"It takes time to just lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters," he said.
"In the current conditions, we cannot use special equipment to clear the debris. Everything is done manually."
But Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made no mention of a celebratory march in the city in a briefing on the army's plan for May 9.
- No man's land -
In a no-man's-land near the southeastern town of Pokrovska, the two sides are only a few kilometres apart -- so close that Ukrainian troops with binoculars can see the Russians digging at their positions.
The deep thump of artillery exchanges comes on top of the odd rocket salvo, yet Ukrainian soldiers told AFP during a visit Wednesday that there was almost no face-to-face fighting.
"As for now, they never come on foot, only artillery," said soldier Dmytro Sirenko, 40, as he peered in the Russians' direction across a broad, green expanse of farms, fields and the occasional house.
"We have time to entrench ourselves, hide and wait for the possible advance of the enemy," he said, a rifle in one hand as he stood in a recently dug foxhole.
- Attacks in the west -
Russian attacks are also periodically straying close to Ukraine's western border with the EU.
Both sides on Wednesday reported Russian strikes on infrastructure around the western city of Lviv, near Poland, and Transcarpathia, a region bordering Hungary.
Russia's defence ministry said that its air and sea-based weapons had destroyed six electrical substations near railways including around Lviv, near Odessa to the south and near Dnipropetrovsk to the southeast.
It said Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region had used the railway stations to transport weapons and ammunition from the West.
In Ukraine's western neighbour Moldova, there are fears the conflict will spill over the border.
Visiting the tiny ex-Soviet republic Wednesday, European Council President Charles Michel offered the EU's "full solidarity" and support, including logistics, cyber defence and military equipment.
- Nuclear drills -
Moscow on Wednesday said its forces had practised simulated nuclear-capable missile strikes in the Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, located between EU and NATO member states Poland and Lithuania.
During the Kaliningrad war games, Russia practised simulated "electronic launches" of nuclear-capable Iskander mobile ballistic missile systems, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Russian President Putin has made thinly veiled threats hinting at a willingness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons since the invasion of Ukraine and warned of a "lightning-fast" retaliation should the West intervene directly.