Russia issues ultimatum amid fierce Ukraine fight

Russia’s foreign minister has accused Ukraine and the West of seeking to destroy his country and says Kyiv must accept Moscow’s demands for ending the war or else watch as the Russian armed forces achieve them on the battlefield.

Sergei Lavrov’s comments, made late on Monday amid continued heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine, came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was open to negotiations, but only on Moscow’s terms.

These include Ukraine recognising Russia’s conquest of one-fifth of its territory.

Kyiv, armed and supported by the United States and its NATO allies, says it will recover all its occupied territory and drive out all Russian soldiers.

“Our proposals for the demilitarisation and denazification of the territories controlled by the regime, the elimination of threats to Russia’s security emanating from there, including our new lands, are well known to the enemy,” state news agency TASS quoted Mr Lavrov as saying.

“The point is simple: Fulfil them for your own good. Otherwise, the issue will be decided by the Russian army.”

Mr Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, calling it a “special operation” to “denazify” and demilitarise Ukraine, which he cast as a pawn of the West that threatened Russia.

Kyiv and the West say Putin’s invasion amounts to an imperialist land grab.

The US and its allies have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia for its invasion and sent billions of dollars in assistance to the Ukrainian government.

Just last week, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was visiting Washington, the US announced another $US1.85 billion ($2.75 billion) in military assistance for Ukraine, including a transfer of the Patriot Air Defence System, angering Moscow.

“It is no secret to anyone that the strategic goal of the United States and its NATO allies is to defeat Russia on the battlefield as a mechanism for significantly weakening or even destroying our country,” Mr Lavrov told TASS.

While Moscow had planned a swift operation to take over its neighbour, the war is now in its 11th month, marked by many embarrassing Russian battlefield setbacks.

In the latest attack to expose gaps in Russia’s air defences, a drone believed to be Ukrainian penetrated hundreds of kilometres through Russian airspace on Monday, causing a deadly explosion at the main base for its strategic bombers.

The heaviest fighting is in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that together make up the industrial Donbas region.

Russia claimed in September to have annexed them, along with the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, but does not fully control any of them.

In his nightly video message on Monday, Mr Zelensky called the situation along the frontline in Donbas “difficult and painful”.

Over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian forces have repelled Russian attacks in the areas of two settlements in Luhansk province and six in Donetsk, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Tuesday.

It also reported more Russian shelling of Kherson city, in the Zaporizhzhia region and of settlements in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine near the border with Russia.

Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst based in Kyiv, cited particularly heavy fighting around elevated areas near Ukraine-held Kreminna in Luhansk.

He said fighting had also picked up along the Bakhmut and Avdiivka line of contact, further south in the Donetsk region.

“The arc of fire in Donetsk region continues to burn,” Mr Zhdanov said in a social media video post.

Reuters footage from Bakhmut showed fires burning inside a stricken neo-classical building, while nearby streets were strewn with debris and many buildings were without windows.

Mr Zelensky said as a result of attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure nearly nine million people were without power. That figure amounts to about one-quarter of Ukraine’s population.

Moscow said on Monday it had shot down a drone believed to be Ukrainian, causing it to crash at the Engels air base, where three service members were killed. Ukraine did not comment, under its usual policy on incidents inside Russia.

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