LVIV, Ukraine — Russia appeared on Monday to launch its anticipated ground offensive in eastern Ukraine as Moscow stepped up missile and artillery strikes across the country in some of the broadest attacks in recent weeks.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, said Russian forces attacked along nearly the entire front line in Donbas and Kharkiv, breaking through in two small cities. “Fortunately, our military is holding on,” Danilov said.
The Pentagon did not contradict the Ukrainian assessment but took a more cautious approach, with spokesman John Kirby saying the Russians “are shaping and setting the conditions for future offensive operations” with hundreds of missile strikes and artillery barrages.
At the same time, the relative calm that western Ukraine has largely enjoyed after more than 50 days of war was shattered when Russian missiles struck the city of Lviv, killing at least seven people and injuring 11, including a child. Regional officials said they were the first deaths recorded inside the limits of the city, which has been a safe haven for displaced Ukrainians and foreign diplomats, as well as aid workers and journalists.
A preliminary assessment indicated the strikes were launched from airplanes that came from the direction of the Caspian Sea, the regional governor, Maksym Kozytskyi, said at a news conference. Officials said the Russian forces hit a military warehouse as well as a commercial service station where local drivers go for tire repairs and carwashes. The warehouse was not being used by the military when it was hit, Kozytskyi said.
In a hotel next to the service station, 32-year-old Kostiantyn Pospelov said he prepared to run when he heard explosions but only had time to pull on his jacket and one sock before another blast blew out the windows and shook the hotel. Pospelov was staying there with roughly 80 other guests who had arrived in the last month from hard-hit cities in the south and east.
Dozens of families sought shelter in the hotel, Volodymyr Tereshko, the manager, recounted. Curtains fluttered out of gaping holes that had been windows of guest rooms.
“No military! Civilian people! Children! Fathers, mothers,” Tereshko said, insisting on English so that people in the West understood who was paying the price for Russia’s onslaught.
Monday’s attack punctured that bubble of normal life. Residents who said they often shrug off air raid sirens filed into underground bunkers, where they traded Telegram messages in search of information about the blasts. Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said on social media that the entire country was vulnerable to Russian assault: “Today in Ukraine there are no safe and unsafe cities.”
At the scene of the auto shop strike, firefighters doused flames and emergency crews picked through the rubble of the two-story building, its roof now ripped off. Smaller buildings on the site were also badly damaged. The smell of burning rubber wafted through the air; charred tires sat in piles.
Evgenii Laziuk, 49, who lives in the area, shook his head as he looked at the ruins of what he called a “fully civilian” target. He said the shop owner is well-known in the community, a father of five whose extended family is involved in the business.
“It’s like having a big wallet and throwing it away,” Laziuk said. “He was feeding his family with it, and now he’s been left with nothing.”
Despite the strike on a civilian structure, the Pentagon said the attacks on Monday seemed to be aimed at military targets and did not signal that Russia was expanding its war into the west of Ukraine. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon, denied that the Russian attacks struck any weapons shipments from the United States or Ukraine’s other allies.
To the south, Russian forces continued their devastating assault on the strategic port city of Mariupol, focusing on a sprawling industrial complex that houses the Azovstal steel plant. Moscow had imposed a deadline for Ukrainian forces to surrender, but as of Monday, they had refused.
A Ukrainian commander who is still fighting alongside soldiers in the city made a desperate plea to Western leaders, including President Biden, for help to evacuate civilians hiding in military bunkers.
“We beg the world for help in evacuating the wounded, children, women and the bodies of the dead,” said Maj. Serhiy Volyna, with the 36th Separate Marine Brigade in a letter posted on his Facebook page. The brigade is one of the groups holed up at the steel plant, the last line of Ukraine’s defense preventing Russia from taking over the city.
“We call on world politicians, public and religious figures not to be indifferent to people who have fallen into the trap of Mariupol against their will,” Volyna wrote in the letter also shared on Twitter by a city official from Kyiv.
Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, said Sunday that the last forces in Mariupol “will fight till the end.”
In the eastern region of Luhansk, leaders urged citizens to urgently evacuate amid a fresh Russian push that killed at least six people.
The Pentagon says Russian forces are learning from their failed assault on Kyiv as they shift to Donbas, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of earlier mistakes.
“They are moving in heavy artillery, they are moving in command-and-control enablers, they are moving in aviation,” the senior defense official said. “It appears they are trying to learn from the lessons of the North, where they didn’t have proper sustainment capabilities.”
Still, Russia’s efforts to buttress its war machine with repair and resupply capabilities is unlikely to solve its overarching problems with preparedness, the official said. Sanctions have affected the Russian forces’ restocking efforts “particularly in the realm of components,” the official said. A lack of parts, the official said, is affecting the viability of several Russian weapons systems, including precision-guided munitions.
“They have already faced an issue in terms of replenishing their inventory because of components of some of these systems,” the official said, adding that even Russia has “concerns about how fast and how much they can ramp up their own domestic production of defense articles.”
“Sanctions are having an effect on their ability to do that.”
Ahead of anticipated heavy fighting in the east, the Biden administration has pledged an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine. As part of that package, U.S. forces in the next several days will begin training select members of Ukraine’s armed forces on American-made howitzers, the defense official said.
The exercises will occur outside Ukraine and will be administered to Ukrainian forces who can then return and train others, in a program the Pentagon describes as “training the trainers.” The weapons, drawn from the Pentagon’s inventory, are to include eighteen 155-millimeter howitzers and 40,000 artillery rounds, the official said. The Ukrainian military has not previously trained to use the artillery, each of which is typically operated by a nine-person crew.
The administration has delivered four flights of equipment to Ukraine since announcing the security package last Wednesday, the senior defense official said.
The Pentagon doesn’t expect it will take long to train the Ukrainians to use the howitzers. “They don’t use American howitzers in artillery,” Kirby said. But “they understand how to use artillery … The basic outlines of the systems are the same.” The Ukrainians just use a smaller caliber.
About half a dozen arms deliveries have now occurred, Kirby said. He emphasized how quickly the shipments occurred. Biden authorized the assistance package April 13, and the first flight was in the air two days later.
“That is unprecedented speed,” Kirby said. “Forty-eight hours after authorization from the president, [the] first plane was on its way. And there have been subsequent shipments.”
Harris, Demirjian and Thebault reported from Washington. Kim Bellware in Chicago and Abigail Hauslohner and Paulina Villegas in Washington contributed to this report.