Russia Hits Rail, Fuel Facilities in Attacks Deep in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia unleashed a string of attacks against Ukrainian rail and fuel facilities Monday, striking crucial infrastructure far from the front line of its eastern offensive, which Britain said has yet to achieve a significant breakthrough.

Meanwhile, two fires were reported at oil facilities in western Russia. It was not clear what caused the blazes.

As both sides in the 2-month-old war brace for what could be a grinding battle of attrition in the country’s eastern industrial heartland, top American officials pledged more help to ensure Ukraine prevails.

In meetings with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Sunday, the American secretaries of state and defense said Washington had approved a $165 million sale of ammunition for Ukraine’s war effort, along with more than $300 million in foreign military financing.

“The strategy that we’ve put in place — massive support for Ukraine, massive pressure against Russia, solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts — is having real results,” Blinken told reporters in Poland the day after the meeting.

“When it comes to Russia’s war aims, Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding,” he added.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba welcomed the American support but said that “as long as Russian soldiers put a foot on Ukrainian soil, nothing is enough.”

Kuleba warned that if western powers want Ukraine to win the war and “stop Putin in Ukraine and not to allow him to go further, deeper into Europe,” then countries to speed up the delivery of the weapons requested by Ukraine.

Speaking Monday to top officials at the Prosecutor General’s office, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the U.S. and its allies have tried and failed to “split Russian society and to destroy Russia from within.”

When Russia invaded on Feb, 24, its apparent goal was a lightning offensive that would quickly take the capital and perhaps even topple the government. But the Ukrainians, aided by Western weapons, bogged Putin’s troops down and thwarted their push to Kyiv.

Moscow now says its focus in the eastern region of the Donbas, though one senior military official said it also wants to control southern Ukraine. While both sides said the campaign in the east has begun, it has yet to gather steam.

A small group of Ukrainian troops holed up in a steel plant in the strategic city of Mariupol are tying down Russian forces, and keeping them from being added to the offensive elsewhere in the Donbas, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Monday.

Over the weekend, Russian forces launched fresh airstrikes on the steel plant in an attempt to dislodge the estimated 2,000 fighters inside. Some 1,000 civilians are also sheltering in the steelworks, and the Russian military pledged to open a humanitarian corridor Monday for them to leave.

The Russian offer was met with skepticism by Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app that Ukraine does not consider the route safe and added that Russia had breached agreements on similar evacuation routes before. She called on the United Nations to oversee an evacuation.

Mariupol has endured fierce fighting since the start of the war because of its strategic location on the Sea of Azov. In addition to freeing up Russian troops, its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

On Monday, Russia focused its firepower elsewhere, with missiles and war planes striking far behind the frontline in the eastern Donbas region.

Oleksandr Kamyshin, the head of the state-run Ukrainian Railways, said five railway facilities in central and western Ukraine were hit early Monday, including a missile attack near the western city of Lviv.

Ukrainian authorities said that at least five people were killed by Russian strikes in the central Vynnytsia region. Regional prosecutors said another 18 people were wounded.

Russia also destroyed an oil refinery in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, along with fuel depots there, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Monday. In all, Russian warplanes destroyed 56 Ukrainian targets overnight, he said.

Phillips P. O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, said the war is, for now, settling into a campaign of incremental battlefield losses and gains.

“The two sides are sort of every day weakening each other,” he said. “So it’s a question of what can you bring in that’s new, but what can you destroy on the other side?”

Meanwhile, a major fire erupted early Monday at an oil depot in a Russian city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Ukrainian border, Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said. No cause was given for the blaze. Photos from the scene showed a huge plume of thick smoke churning into the sky.

The oil depot in Bryansk is owned by a subsidiary of the Russian state-controlled company Transneft, which operates the Druzhba pipeline that carries crude west to other European countries. The ministry said in a statement that the huge blaze damaged a depot containing diesel fuel. It noted that the region has enough diesel for 15 days.

It wasn’t clear if the depot was part of the pipeline infrastructure, but Polish pipelines operator PERN said deliveries to Poland have not been affected.

A Russian news report said that another oil storage facility in Bryansk also caught fire early Monday, and the cause wasn’t immediately known.

Last month, two Ukrainian helicopter gunships hit an oil reservoir in Russia’s Belgorod region, which lies on the Ukrainian border, causing a fire.

In a video address Monday, Zelenskyy described his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as “encouraging and, importantly, effective.”

The Ukrainian leader added that they agreed “on further steps to strengthen the armed forces of Ukraine and meet all the priority needs of our army.” Earlier, he praised U.S. President Joe Biden for his “personal support.”

The three-hour meeting came Sunday, the 60th day since the start of the invasion, as Ukraine pressed the West for more powerful weapons against Russia’s campaign in the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some territory before the war.

With Russia’s shift in focus, Austin said Ukraine’s military needs are changing, and Zelenskyy is now focused on more tanks, artillery and other munitions.

Asked about what the U.S. sees as success, Austin said that “we want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory, we want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.”

As Blinken and Austin left Ukraine, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday and then Moscow and Kyiv. Zelenskyy criticized Guterres for visiting Russia before Ukraine.

Blinken said he had spoken with Guterres on Friday ahead of the trip.

“Our expectation is that he’s going to carry a very strong and clear message to Vladimir Putin, which is the need to end this war now,” he said.

In a boost for Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron comfortably won a second term Sunday over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, who had pledged to dilute France’s ties with the European Union and NATO. Le Pen had also spoken out against EU sanctions on Russian energy and had faced scrutiny during the campaign over her previous friendliness with the Kremlin.