By SUSIE BLANN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia is mustering its military might in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, local officials said Wednesday, in what Kyiv suspects is preparation for an offensive in the eastern area in coming weeks as the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion approaches.
Also Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government continued its recent crackdown on alleged corruption. The government dismissed several more high-ranking officials, prominent lawmaker David Arakhamia said.
Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft, and the new allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight Moscow.
On the battlefront, the Kremlin’s forces are expelling local residents from their homes near the Russian-held parts of the front line so that they can’t provide information about Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said.
“There is an active transfer of (Russian troops) to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Haidai said.
Military analysts anticipate a new push soon by Moscow’s forces, with the Institute for the Study of War saying in an assessment late Tuesday that “an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action.”
A new offensive might also coincide with the invasion anniversary on Feb. 24.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported Wednesday that Russia is also concentrating its efforts in neighboring Donetsk province, especially in its bid to capture the key city of Bakhmut.
Donetsk and Luhansk provinces make up the Donbas, an industrial region bordering Russia that President Vladimir Putin identified as a goal from the war’s outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian authorities since 2014.
Russian shelling of Bakhmut, where most residents have fled and others spend much of their time in cellars, killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 others on Tuesday, Ukraine’s presidential office said Wednesday.
The regional governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, posted images of the aftermath of the shelling, showing huge black holes in residential buildings in the embattled city.
He said that Russia is “actively deploying new military personnel to the region.”
Donetsk was one of four provinces that Russia illegally annexed in the fall, but it controls only about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, which offers the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities.
Russian forces have been trying for months to capture Bakhmut. Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around the city.
Ukraine is keen to secure more Western military aid as it tries to fend off the much larger Russian forces. It has already won pledges of tanks and now wants more.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, tweeted Wednesday that talks are underway on securing longer-range missiles and fighter jets from Ukraine’s allies.
Asked to comment on media reports about a new package of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine expected to be announced soon, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as “a direct path to inciting tensions and taking the escalation to a new level.”
“It will require additional efforts on our part, but it won’t change the course of events,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
The Western allies are trying to broaden their coalition in support of Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday in Tokyo that he sought stronger cooperation and more “friends” for the alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
In other developments Wednesday:
— David Arakhamia, the head of the parliamentary faction of Ukraine’s Servant of the People party to which Zelenskyy belongs, said several senior officials were targeted in the government’s anti-corruption drive. Among those dismissed were Yuri Sotnik, who served as First Deputy Chairman of the State Forest Agency; Alexander Shchutsky, First Deputy Chairman of the State Customs Service; and Andrei Lordkipanidze, Deputy Chairman of the State Service for Food Safety and Consumer Protection, Arakhamia said.
In addition, disciplinary proceedings were launched against the deputy head of the customs service, Ruslan Cherkassky, who has been suspended from his duties, according to Arakhamia.
— The presidents of Bulgaria and Serbia launched the construction of the Bulgarian part of a gas link designed to diversify the energy supplies of a region that until recently was almost fully dependent on natural gas deliveries from Russia.
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