The National Times - Austria leader to meet Putin as Ukraine braces for eastern offensive

Austria leader to meet Putin as Ukraine braces for eastern offensive

Austria leader to meet Putin as Ukraine braces for eastern offensive
Austria leader to meet Putin as Ukraine braces for eastern offensive

Austria's chancellor on Monday will become the first European leader to visit Moscow since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as Kyiv steels itself for a huge Russian offensive in the country's east.

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Karl Nehammer said he would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and is expected to raise alleged war crimes in devastated areas around Kyiv that were under Russian occupation, including the town of Bucha.

Ukrainian authorities say over 1,200 bodies have been found in the area so far and that they are weighing cases against "500 suspects", including Putin and other top Russian officials.

Russian forces are now turning their focus to the Donbas region in the east, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian troops were preparing "even larger operations".

Russia is believed to be seeking a link between occupied Crimea and Moscow-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas.

"They can use even more missiles against us... But we are preparing for their actions. We will answer," Zelensky said.

Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday warned that the region could suffer as badly as Mariupol, a besieged port city that even pro-Russian authorities say has been 70 percent ruined by fighting.

Marines in Mariupol warned on Monday that Ukrainian forces were preparing for a final stand to control the southern port.

"Today will probably be the last battle, as the ammunition is running out," the 36th marine brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces said on Facebook.

"It's death for some of us, and captivity for the rest," it added, saying it had been "pushed back" and "surrounded" by the Russian army.

- 'War on civilians' -

Over the weekend, ongoing strikes hampered evacuations in and around Kharkiv in the northeast, and 11 people were killed, including a seven-year-old child, regional governor Oleg Synegubov said.

"The Russian army continues to wage war on civilians due to a lack of victories at the front," he said on Telegram.

In Dnipro, an industrial city of around one million inhabitants, Russian missiles rained down on the local airport, nearly destroying the facility and causing an unknown number of casualties, local authorities said.

The Russian defence ministry said it had destroyed a Ukrainian S-300 anti-aircraft system supplied by "a European country" in a hangar south of Dnipro, as well as 10 Ukrainian tanks, five self-propelled guns and five rocket launchers in the Donetsk region.

Gaiday said a missile strike on a railway station in the city of Kramatorsk on Friday, which killed 57 people, had left many afraid to flee. Russia has denied involvement in the strike.

Gaiday again urged people to leave the region, with five humanitarian corridors agreed for Monday.

"You are alive because a Russian shell has not yet hit your house or basement -- evacuate, buses are waiting, our military routes are as secure as possible," he wrote on Telegram.

Over the weekend, nearly 50 wounded and elderly patients were transported from the east in a hospital train by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the first such evacuation since the Kramatorsk attack.

Electrician Evhen Perepelytsia was rescued after he lost his leg in shelling in his hometown of Hirske.

"We hope that the worst is over -- that after what I've been through, it will be better," said the 30-year-old after arriving in the western city of Lviv.

On Monday, the Chairman of the Board of Ukrainian Railways, Alexander Kamyshin, said another railway station in the east had been attacked overnight.

"They continue to aim at the railway infrastructure," he wrote.

- EU talks sanctions -

On the diplomatic front, EU foreign ministers were meeting Monday to discuss a sixth round of sanctions, with concerns that divisions over a ban on Russia gas and oil imports could blunt their impact.

Austria is an EU member, but does not belong to NATO, and Nehammer's spokesman said Brussels, Berlin and Kyiv had been informed about the Moscow visit.

The talks with Putin are expected to take place behind closed doors, without a joint media appearance.

"We are militarily neutral, but have a clear stance on the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine," Nehammer tweeted, calling for humanitarian corridors, a ceasefire and a full investigation of war crimes.

US President Joe Biden meanwhile will hold virtual talks on Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, just weeks after saying India had been "shaky" in its response to the invasion.

A US spokeswoman said the two leaders would consult on ways to offset the "destabilising impact (of the war) on global food supply and commodity markets".

The World Bank warned Sunday that Ukraine's economy would collapse by 45 percent this year -- a much bleaker outlook than it predicted even a month ago -- while Russia would see an 11 percent decline in GDP.

- 'Atrocious cruelty' -

Ukraine's allies have sought to pile pressure on Moscow over allegations its troops carried out war crimes in areas around Kyiv, and there has been little sign that intermittent peace talks are progressing.

The pope has urged an Easter ceasefire, denouncing a war where "defenceless civilians" suffered "heinous massacres and atrocious cruelty."

At least 183 children have died and 342 were injured in Ukraine in 46 days of the Russian invasion, the prosecutor general's office said on Telegram.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Sunday told NBC's "Meet the Press" he was still open to negotiating with the Russians.

"If sitting down with the Russians will help me to prevent at least one massacre like in Bucha, or at least another attack like in Kramatorsk, I have to take that opportunity," he said.

Bucha -- where authorities say hundreds were killed, some with their hands bound -- has become a byword for the brutality allegedly inflicted under Russian occupation.