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As “Battle of the Donbas” Begins, Russia Launches 1,200+ Strikes Across Ukraine; 7 Killed in Lviv

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Image Credit: Mariupol City Council

Ukraine’s president says Russia has started a major offensive to seize the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine while launching missiles at targets across the country. We go outside of Kyiv to get an update from Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative. Facing a stronger resistance from Ukrainian defenses than anticipated, Russian President Vladimir Putin is practicing “scorched-earth tactics” and “venting his anger on Ukraine,” says Zalmayev. “His goal remains controlling all of Ukraine, or at least making it a failed state.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia has launched a major offensive to seize the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, with Ukrainian officials saying Russia is attacking its positions along a 300-mile frontline. This is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking on Monday.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] We can now say that Russian forces have started the battle of the Donbas, for which they have long prepared. A very large part of the Russian army is now focused on this offensive.

AMY GOODMAN: The Russian Defense Ministry says missile and artillery forces struck over 1,200 targets overnight across Ukraine. In the western city of Lviv, seven civilians died and 12 were injured Monday after Russian missile strikes hit the city, where thousands of displaced Ukrainians are living after fleeing fighting in other parts of the country. One missile strike shattered windows of a hotel housing evacuees. Russia has maintained its attacks are targeting military installations, including command posts and weapon storage depots.

In other developments, the United Nations says the official civilian death toll from the war has surpassed 2,000, but Ukrainian officials say it’s far higher.

In the besieged eastern city of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces are continuing to reject an ultimatum from Russia to lay down their arms. While Russia has seized most of the port city, Ukrainian forces and civilians remain holed up in a massive steel plant. Earlier today, a commander with Ukraine’s far-right Azov Regiment accused Russia of dropping bunker-busting bombs on the steel plant.

Earlier today, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu criticized the United States and its allies for funneling arms to Ukraine. He said this, quote, “clearly demonstrates their intentions to provoke the Kyiv regime to fight to the last Ukrainian standing,” unquote. This comes as Reuters reports the Pentagon is planning to start training Ukrainians on how to use howitzer artillery systems. Last week, the Biden administration announced plans to send an additional $800 million in arms to Ukraine, including Humvees, coastal defense drones and howitzers.

To talk more about the war in Ukraine, we’re joined outside of Kyiv by Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative.

Peter Zalmayev, welcome back to Democracy Now!

PETER ZALMAYEV: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: In the U.S. media, you have — it’s a redefinition of general news, right? News from the generals on all of the military tactics. But we want to talk to you about diplomacy. What do you think is a possible path to peace at this point? Do you think there is one?

PETER ZALMAYEV: At this point, I don’t think so. The Russians are really between a rock and a hard place, you know, in this new offensive, because the sacred day of May 9th is coming up on the calendar. That is the day of the victory of the Soviet Union over the Nazi Germany. That’s the day when the military parade takes place in Moscow. And Vladimir Putin is going to have to show some victories for all the blood and tragedy that he has expended in Ukraine. So his generals are following orders: do or die, and give him some victory.

That could be the capture, the final capture, of Mariupol — obviously a formality, simply because there is no more city standing there, essentially. All of it will have to be essentially knocked down, because very few buildings remain livable. But if they could build up some sort of a Potemkin village there, which the Russians are very adept at doing, and put together some military parade down the main drag of Mariupol to show to the viewers at home, that would be something that could be construed as, I guess, a temporary, limited victory.

But, once again, make no mistake: Vladimir Putin, whatever his intentions are in Donbas, if he’s able to achieve some victories there or not, and if at that point there will be talk of a, let’s say, ceasefire — I very much doubt there will be, like, full peace talks, but maybe a ceasefire — he will not stop at that point. His goal, I think, remains controlling all of Ukraine, or at least making it a failed state, getting rid of the current government.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, you mentioned the situation in Mariupol. There’s not only a significant force still left there, a few thousand of the Azov Battalion, but The New York Times is also reporting that there are about 800 foreign fighters that are in the city, as well. Do you think that’s going to have any impact on the ultimate tactics of the Russian military in trying to stamp out the remaining opposition?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, I’m not sure if we can corroborate that number. I mean, it seems to be, to me, a bit high and exaggerated. But there probably are foreign fighters, similar to what we saw in the Spanish war in 1936. Ukraine has obviously garnered a lot of worldwide sympathy as the underdog in this fight, and so there have been a lot of interest to come and fight for Ukraine. The efficacy of that is questionable, obviously. You know, not all are able fighters.

But when it comes to Russia’s response, nothing will stop Vladimir Putin. You know, there were already uncorroborated reports, as I’m sure you have heard, that a limited chemical weapons were used in Mariupol. I cannot confirm or deny that. But, you know, the Russians already are using very, very heavy bombs, striking that steel plant where the remaining defense is holed up, along with 2,000 — mind you — 2,000 civilians, just in that steel plant. So, they are willing to obliterate the steel plant, the whole town, and declare it a victory. It’s truly scorched-earth tactics.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the change in strategy of the Russians, obviously, from first trying to encircle the capital to now concentrating on the east and the south of Ukraine, is it your sense that there’s still a hope of Putin to be able to conquer all of Ukraine, given the fact that there’s really not sufficient number of Russian troops to be able to do anything near that?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, that’s a very good question. You know, it’s been kind of a sight to behold from the beginning of the campaign. American generals and military experts and European experts and experts the world over have sort of asked themselves this question: Like, how do you expect to achieve any military goals when you go into a country of 44 million people, hoping to invade and control it with fewer than 200,000 troops? You know, it took 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops in 1968 to invade and control Czechoslovakia, to put down the revolt there. And the size of Czechoslovakia and the weapons it had at that point, there’s no comparison with Ukraine.

So, it just brings to mind this line from Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. I was just reading his op-ed. I think it says it all. He says, “High-coercion authoritarian systems are low-information systems,” which means that, you know, Putin has been drip-fed this information that he wanted to hear, and he grossly overestimated, A, the readiness and the capability of his military, the state of his weapons systems, and, B, he underestimated Ukrainians’ willingness to fight.

But what you’re seeing, Juan, just to come back to the battles we’re seeing now in the east and, obviously, the continuing battles in the south, a part of Vladimir Putin’s original plan to try to cut off Ukraine from access to all seas, to Azov Sea and the Black Sea, and maybe allowing for the creation of some sort of a rump Ukrainian state that would be essentially landlocked.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, let me ask you about the whole world’s reaction to what’s taking place. We definitely know about the U.S. and Europe. And, of course, you’re the director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative. Thirty countries have sanctioned Russia. It’s mainly the United States and Russia. They represent 15% of the world’s population. Ninety-four countries voted to throw Russia off the U.N. Human Rights Council. They represent 24%, a quarter of the world’s population. The developing world has a different reaction to this, saying, “This is not our war.” What do you say to them? And how do you think this can be resolved? And bring China into this picture.

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, I think you hit the nail on its head when you mentioned China. The sheer size of India and China, which are somewhat sitting on the fence, China less so — China is at least officially, you know, an ally of Vladimir Putin. India has, like, old Soviet-era ties with the Soviet Union, and now Russia as the successor state, so it has a mixture of pragmatic military interests and economic interests, and some nostalgia, as well. But if you take these two countries and their combined population of 2 billion people, this is how you arrive at the numbers that you quoted, 24% of the world body, those who voted to kick Russia off the council. So it’s a little bit misleading, because we’re only talking about two players, but they have — obviously, they’re humongous in size.

You know, China, I think, is having some second thoughts, from the very beginning of this. They just haven’t been able to say it like that, simply because they signed a pact with Putin, and it would damage their reputation to just be seen walking away from their ally. But I think they’re having second thoughts about, like, this new world order that Russia was so eager to proclaim with their attempt at blitzkrieg in Ukraine — half, I think, expecting China to follow up and invade Taiwan. All of a sudden, China is having second thoughts. It’s not gone according to plan. India is having second thoughts, as well, but they’re still buying Russian oil at a steep discount.

Both countries need to understand that this is leading to disasters that will be knocking on every country’s door. Already, as you know, we’re facing a famine throughout the developing world, including in Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, because the two countries combined, Russia and Ukraine, produce the bulk of the world’s grains. So, no one is going to be benefited, specifically China and India, which are so globally interlinked, so globally involved, that for them to be really aiding Russia at this point and helping Russia means ostracism economically, because some of these sanctions that have been slapped on Russia will be affecting them, as well. So, while the governments there, at least officially, are neutral or supportive, in words, of Russia, or at least sympathetic, businesses in China and India increasingly agitate to be a bit more reasonable and to try to bring — to try to use their countries’ might to strive for peace between the two countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, back to Juan’s question at the beginning, you have this war in eastern Ukraine now — that’s where Putin is focusing — but then you have the bombing of Lviv all the way in the west, where so many refugees from the east have fled to. The significance of that hit?

PETER ZALMAYEV: The significance is very clear: It’s tit for tat. As you probably mentioned in your program, the sinking of the Moskva, the Moscow cruiser, was a huge blow to Russia’s prestige and to Vladimir Putin’s personal prestige. That cruiser was supposed to be — was said to be his favorite. And so —

AMY GOODMAN: This is the flagship warship.

PETER ZALMAYEV: The flagship warship, the first such sinking in several decades, you know, of recent history. And so, Vladimir Putin is really venting his anger on Ukraine.

Coupled with that, I would just mention, there was a recent article in a state-run media publication which essentially said that Ukraine must be de-Ukranianized. The whole country was declared Nazis. So we’re seeing a very Hitleresque, kind of a Hitlerian strategy being played out. Vladimir Putin is taking it very, very seriously. And, you know, President Biden has said it. He was very clear in his assessment, that this smacks of a genocidal policy. It’s now very personal for Vladimir Putin.

And if anyone needed any evidence that this was one crazy, obsessed man’s war, I mean, this is it. He’s striking on Lviv, the most Ukrainian city, the city that’s as removed from Russia as anything, the city that was least Russianized. And he’s also sending a message that nowhere — no matter where you are in Ukraine, you’re not going to be safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative.

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