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Russia Aims to Seize Southern Ukraine; UN Chief Plans Moscow Visit

FILE - A Russian military convoy moves on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol, Ukraine, April 16, 2022. Moscow intends to seize all of southern and eastern Ukraine, a Russian general said on April 22, 2023.

Moscow intends to seize all of southern and eastern Ukraine, a Russian general said Friday, suggesting a far more extensive offensive than Russia had previously acknowledged. Meanwhile, the U.N. secretary- general announced plans to visit Moscow next week.

Ukraine said the comments by Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia's central military district, showed Russia's previous claims that it had no territorial ambitions were not true.

"They stopped hiding it," Ukraine's defense ministry said on Twitter, adding that Russia had "acknowledged that the goal of the 'second phase' of the war is not victory over the mythical Nazis, but simply the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. Imperialism as it is."

Russian state news agencies quoted Minnekayev as saying that Moscow wanted to seize the entire eastern Donbas region, provide a land corridor to link up with the Crimean Peninsula, and capture Ukraine's entire south as far west as a breakaway, Russian-occupied region of Moldova. That would mean carrying the offensive hundreds of miles past the current lines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin previously said Russia had no intention of permanently occupying Ukranian cities. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a move that was widely condemned by the international community.

UN leader's visit

The U.N. announced Friday that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres would meet Putin in Moscow on Tuesday. He’ll also hold meetings and have a working lunch with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The U.N. chief wrote to Putin on Tuesday requesting a meeting to discuss the next steps toward peace in Ukraine. He also wrote to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Guterres' spokesperson said his office was in contact with the government in Kyiv about scheduling a visit there as well.

Guterres also appealed this week for a four-day humanitarian pause to coincide with Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated in Ukraine and Russia. So far, those efforts have failed.

At a Friday press conference in Moscow, Lavrov said talks to end the fighting in Ukraine were at a standstill because Kyiv had not responded to Moscow's latest proposals.

"Another proposal we passed on to Ukrainian negotiators about five days ago, which was drawn up with their comments taken into account, it remains without a response,” Russia's top diplomat said.

However, Russia’s lead negotiator at the talks with Ukraine, Putin aide Vladimir Medinsky, confirmed that he'd engaged in several lengthy conversations with the head of the Ukrainian delegation on Friday, The Associated Press reported.

Alleged war crimes

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said there was growing evidence that Russia had committed war crimes in Ukraine.

"Russian armed forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes," said Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

The U.N. said it appeared that Ukraine had also used weapons with indiscriminate effects.

Meanwhile, Putin has declared the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol “liberated” after nearly two months of fighting, even though Russian forces have not been able to penetrate the city’s massive Azovstal steel plant that remains in the hands of Ukrainian fighters and civilians.

Rather than storming the plant, Putin has ordered a blockade of the facility, sealing it off "so that not even a fly comes through." Observers believe the tactic is intended to save Russian soldiers’ lives and possibly starve out the fighters and civilians inside the plant.

More aid

U.S. President Joe Biden said, “There is no evidence Mariupol has fallen,” but weeks of Russian bombing have flattened much of the city. More than 100,000 Ukrainians are believed to be trapped in Mariupol, where 400,000 people lived before Russia invaded the country on February 24.

Zelenskyy said Russian forces controlled most of Mariupol but that Ukrainian troops did remain in part of the city.

Ukrainian officials said evidence of mass graves outside Mariupol had emerged. Photographs from Maxar Technologies, a U.S. satellite imagery company, appear to show images of at least 200 new graves in the town of Manhush.

Zelenskyy told the World Bank on Thursday that his country needed as much as $7 billion a month in support and would need hundreds of billions to recover from Russia’s invasion.

Biden authorized another $800 million in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on Thursday, declaring it was necessary to help Kyiv’s forces repel Russian fighters in the critical battles unfolding in the eastern region of the country.

VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.