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Ukrainian forces brace for a redoubled Russian assault in the east and south

The Ukrainian military was stiffening defenses Sunday against an anticipated Russian assault in the east — and possibly the south — as the nation’s president framed the war as an existential threat to all of European democracy.

“The whole European project is a target for Russia,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an overnight address, labeling the conflict raging inside Ukraine a “catastrophe” that will “inevitably” spread elsewhere in Europe.

“Because Russian aggression was not intended to be limited to Ukraine alone, to the destruction of our freedom and our lives alone,” he added.

The president’s rhetoric soared to Churchillian heights after a meeting Saturday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The two leaders took a stroll through downtown Kyiv, a jaunt that would have been unimaginable two weeks ago, when armored columns of Russian tanks were poised at the northern reaches of the city.

The Russians pulled back from Kyiv earlier this month after Moscow’s bid to take the capital failed and its troops became bogged down in the northern reaches of the city. Russia now says it is focusing its attention on the eastern Donbas region, home to a pair of breakaway, pro-Russian republics where fighting has been ongoing since 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which he calls a “special military operation,” is meant to protect Ukrainian civilians subject to abuse and to bolster security for Russia in the face of western encroachment.

Johnson’s visit to Kyiv was not disclosed before his arrival here; he traveled to Kyiv by train from Poland, according to the British media.

Johnson was the latest in a series of high-ranking European officials to make the trek to the Ukrainian capital. More are expected in coming days as European leaders seek to show solidarity with Ukraine and its leader, whose global popularity has soared since the war began.

After Johnson’s visit, Britain said it was sending 120 armored vehicles an anti-shipping missile systems to Ukraine. Russia has targeted the country with missile attacks from both land and sea.

In the east, the Ukrainian military said it was resisting Russian efforts to break through from the strategic city of Izyum, which Russian forces have seized. Ukraine said it was also continuing to fight off Russian attacks in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, much of which has been destroyed in weeks of street fighting and shelling.

Control of Mariupol is considered a particular prize for Russia. Capturing the city would allow the creation of a land corridor from Russia and territories it controls to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized eight years ago.

A satellite image shows a Ukrainian naval vessel and a nearby building burning in Mariupol, Ukraine.

(Planet Labs PBC / Associated Press)

In recent days, thousands of civilians have been fleeing Mariupol and other eastern towns and cities. Ukrainian authorities have recommended that as many leave as possible ahead of an expected Russian offensive in the east.

Still, there was still considerable unease following Friday’s missile strike at a train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk that killed at least 52 and left more than 100 wounded. The station was crowded with people fleeing the Donbas region.

Ukraine and its western allies blamed Russia for the deadly strike at the Kramatorsk train station. Moscow denied being involved in the attack.

Those responsible for the railway strike would be discovered and would face war-crimes charges, vowed Zelensky. The Ukrainian president has made a similar pledge after murders of civilians came to light north of Kyiv.

“This is another war crime of Russia, for which everyone involved will be held accountable,” he said.

People shelter in the basement of a church in Bashtanka, Ukraine, amid Russian shelling.

People shelter in the basement of a church in Bashtanka, Ukraine, amid Russian shelling.

(Petros Giannakouris / Associated Press)

About a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people have been displaced from their homes, including more than 4 million who have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, a curfew remained in effect in Odesa, the crown jewel of Ukraine’s port cities on the Black Sea. Both Odesa and the nearby city of Mykolaiv have recently been the target of Russian strikes.

In the first days of the war, Mykolaiv, famed for its ship-building industries, stood in the path of of a concerted Russian push to reach Odesa.

Weeks later, with Russia withdrawing some of its forces and reorienting its attention to the east, the threat — at least for the moment — appeared to have receded. On a sunny Sunday, residents took to the streets strolling through some of the city’s elegant parks and boulevards.

A woman holds her child in the basement of a building damaged during a fighting used as a bomb shelter in Mariupol

A woman and her child find safety in the basement of a building in Mariupol, Ukraine.

(Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

“We are getting used to this situation. We live, we want to live,” said Olga Volkova, a 32-year-old accountant walking with her partner, Vitaly Larionov.

Though the Russian army remains in Kherson, fewer than 40 miles to the southeast, Larionov and Volkova insist they have no interest in leaving Mykolaiv, despite frequent Russian shelling of the town.

Others, like Liudmilla, a pensioner who gave only her first name for reasons of privacy, said that she wasn’t “panicking” over the prospect of renewed hostilities in the city, but feared the momentum of the conflict.

“I think our government should think more about people,” she said.

“I’m afraid that Ukraine will fight to the last Ukrainian. Russians, Ukrainians, we should sit down and discuss. I want peace.”

Bulos reported from Mykolaiv and McDonnell from Kyiv.

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