Russian forces pounded cities in central Ukraine on Wednesday night, capping a day of mounting concern among Western leaders that Moscow is preparing to ramp up its attacks and may even formally declare all-out war against Ukraine when Russia holds its annual Victory Day celebrations early next week.
While a top Kremlin spokesman called such speculation “nonsense” on Wednesday, Russia’s defense chief suggested Moscow is poised to dramatically expand missile strikes on areas of Ukraine that it believes are being used by the U.S. and NATO allies to channel increasingly powerful and sophisticated weapons to the Ukrainian military.
“Any NATO transports carrying weapons or resources for the Ukrainian military that arrives in the country’s territory will be seen by us as a legitimate target to be destroyed,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in published remarks that denounced the West for “stuffing Ukraine with weapons.”
The threatening comments came as Washington and its Western allies accelerated weapons shipments into Ukraine while scrambling to increase economic pressure on Moscow as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion grinds violently through its third month.
The prospect of a Ukraine-Russia cease-fire appears increasingly dim, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying Wednesday that his government will not accept any deal with Moscow that would allow Russian troops to remain in their current positions, occupying Ukrainian territory in the divided Donbas region.
Prior to invading Ukraine, Russia had controlled an eastern slice of the country’s territory in support of pro-Moscow separatist forces there, as well as in the Crimean peninsula, which Mr. Putin forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
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While it remains to be seen whether the Zelenskyy government may be willing to negotiate over Crimea, the Ukrainian president told participants in the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit on Wednesday that Ukraine “will not accept a frozen conflict.”
Ukrainian forces halted the Russian offensive targeting Kyiv and other major cities in what Mr. Zelenskyy described as the first stage of the conflict. In the second stage, he said, Ukraine would expel Russian troops from its territory and in the third, would move to fully restore its territorial integrity.
His statements came as Western Europe, which depends heavily on Russian for energy, inched closer Wednesday to imposing a collective embargo on Russian oil. Exports to Western markets such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands represent a crucial revenue source for the Russian economy and the Putin government.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, proposed having EU countries phase out all imports of Russian crude within six months and refined products by the end of the year. “We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion, in a way that allows us and our partners to secure alternative supply routes and minimizes the impact on global markets,” she said in remarks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
The proposals must be unanimously approved to take effect and are likely to be the subject of fierce debate. Ms. von der Leyen conceded that getting all 27 EU member countries — some of them landlocked and highly dependent on Russia for energy supplies — to agree on oil sanctions “will not be easy.”
U.S. officials, meanwhile, prepared for a renewed diplomatic push against Russia at the United Nations, where the U.S. took over the rotating monthly presidency of the U.N. Security Council on May 1. The Biden administration has signaled plans to hold a slate of Security Council meetings on Ukraine over the coming days and weeks, the first of which is slated for Thursday.
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Concerns over the prospect of a dramatic uptick in Russia’s war are likely to be vented during the meeting, which comes just days before Moscow’s highly-anticipated Victory Day celebrations. Analysts say Russian forces in recent days have focused heavily on undermining Ukraine’s defense establishment and Kyiv’s ability to re-supply troops in the fighting.
According to Foreign Policy.com, Russian artillery fire in recent days has targeted or taken out an anti-ship missile facility near Kyiv, a Malyshev tank factory in Kharkiv, and major industrial complexes in the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol and Mykolaiv.
‘Victory Day’ in Russia
The Kremlin pushed ahead with preparations plans for a major parade showing off the country’s military might, even as Russian forces are seen to have stalled and struggled to regroup in Ukraine during recent weeks.
The Russian Defense Ministry said this week it will send 77 combat aircraft into the skies over Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in what Russians refer to as the “Great Patriotic War.”
The Moscow parade is one of 28 military commemorations scheduled to take place throughout Russia. Defense Minister Shoigu told Tass, the Russian news agency, that about 65,000 troops, 2,400 weapon systems and more than 460 aircraft will take part. While significant, the size of this year’s main parade in Moscow is reported to be notably smaller than past commemorations, a reflection of the heavy losses of men and hardware Russian forces have experienced in the Ukraine fighting.
But the drain of the war won’t stop the party. TASS reported that an Ilyushin Il-80 ‘doomsday’ strategic command post has already flown over Moscow during dress rehearsals this week, escorted by at least two MiG-29 fighters.
Other long-range bombers, including the MiG-31 and MiG-31BM, have also reportedly taken to the skies over the Russian capital, with fighter pilots flying over Red Square in a tight formation resembling the letter Z, which has come to symbolize the Russian public’s support for the country’s troops fighting in Ukraine.
Western analysts have speculated that Mr. Putin is planning either a major military or diplomatic announcement on Ukraine tied to the May 9 celebrations, including perhaps an official declaration of war or the possible formal annexation of breakaway enclaves in the eastern Donbas region. But the Kremlin on Wednesday denied any plans for a bombshell announcement tied to what the Putin government still refers to officially as a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov specifically batted down talk of a formal declaration of war on Wednesday, telling reporters “there is no chance of that — it’s nonsense.”
Mr. Peskov’s comments came as air raid sirens sounded in cities across Ukraine Wednesday night and missile fire followed shortly after in the cities of Cherkasy, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, all situated south of Kyiv.
In Dnipro, Mayor Borys Filatov said one strike hit the center of the city. The strikes in Dnipro also hit a railroad facility, authorities initially said, without elaborating. Ukrainian Railways said none of its staff were injured in the Dnipro attack.
The Associated Press reported that it had analyzed new satellite imagery that suggests fighting may also be ongoing at a besieged Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol. The Kremlin had denied Russian forces are trying to storm the plant, the last remaining holdout of Ukrainian fighters in the city.
In other diplomatic developments Wednesday, Bulgaria’s parliament approved a measure to increase aid to Ukraine following a debate that had rattled the country’s governing coalition. The proposal, introduced by the centrist party of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, was supported by 200 legislators. Sixteen were against, one abstained, while 23 lawmakers were not present.
The pro-Russian Socialist Party had threatened to quit the governing coalition if the aid was approved. Wednesday’s vote took place only after Ukraine’s Mr. Zelenskyy sent a letter to Bulgarian parliament. Instead of weapons deliveries, he reportedly asked for damaged Ukrainian military equipment to be repaired at Bulgarian plants and then sent back.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, meanwhile, reaffirmed his country’s strong support for Finland and Sweden potentially joining NATO. Finland and Sweden are expected to announce next week whether to seek membership of the 30-nation alliance.
“I cannot conceive that we would not come to support [their membership],” Mr. Wallace told reporters. “We will do whatever we need to do.” He added that Finland is “in a pole position” to join NATO and that the British Parliament would be able to ratify a Finnish membership “quickly.”
The British defense secretary was among a clutch of officials who observed a military exercise in western Finland on Wednesday involving troops from the United Kingdom, Latvia, the United States and Estonia.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.