Ukrainians flee as Russian troops converge on the east and south

ISACCEA, ROMANIA-APRIL 10, 2022-Nataliia (double ii) Cherneha age 78, left, Melek Sidorova, right, with her dog Lea, and other Ukrainians board a bus at the Isaccea, Romania border crossing before heading to Bucharest. She left Mykolaiv with her daughter and grandchildren. Despite a day and night curfew in southern Ukraine, which restricted travel, dozens of refugees made it to the Orlivka Ferry crossing which goes across the Danube to Isaccea, Romania. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Nataliia Cherneha, 78, left, Melek Sidorova, with her dog Lea, and other Ukrainians wait on a bus at the border crossing in Isaccea, Romania, before heading to Bucharest. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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The Ukrainian military stiffened defenses Sunday against Russian assaults in the east and south as civilians continued to flee the country in vast numbers and 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 a video address, labeling the conflict raging in Ukraine a “catastrophe” that will “inevitably” spread elsewhere in Europe.

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

The Ukrainian military said it was resisting Russian efforts in the east to break through from the city of Izyum, which Russian forces have seized as a strategic foothold to take more territory.

Ukraine said it was 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. It also reported a missile strike on an airport in the city of Dnipro in which five emergency workers were wounded.

Since troops retreated from Kyiv this month after failing to take the capital and becoming bogged down in the northern reaches of the city, Ukraine has been bracing for new Russian advances in the south and in the eastern region of Donbas, home to a pair of breakaway, pro-Russia republics where fighting has been ongoing since 2014.

Satellite images released Sunday by Maxar Technologies show what appears to be an 8-mile-long convoy of Russian military vehicles heading south toward Izyum, a gateway to the Donbas.. In another apparent switch in strategy, Russia has appointed a new commander to oversee its invasion of Ukraine, according to U.S. officials.

National security advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN that Russia's new wartime leader, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, helped lead attacks on civilians while he was in charge of Russian troops in Syria's bloody civil conflict.

“This general will just be another author of crimes and brutality against Ukrainian civilians," Sullivan said.

Western military analysts have downplayed Russia's military prowess in recent weeks, describing its troops as diminished and demoralized by a surprisingly stiff resistance from volunteer defenders and a Ukraine army supplied with technology and weapons from NATO nations.

In a new assessment, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War predicted that "Russia will likely continue to throw badly damaged and partially reconstituted units piecemeal into offensive operations that make limited gains at great cost." In a sign of Russia's desperation, it pointed to recent intelligence from Western military officials that Russia’s armed forces have begun re-enlisting retired soldiers to compensate for mounting casualties.

The think tank said Russia may end up securing much of the Donbas region if it is able to "trap or wear down Ukrainian forces," but it said it is equally likely that Russian forces may be depleted before that happens.

In recent days, Ukrainian authorities have urged civilians to flee the east and parts of the south ahead of an expected Russian advance.

An aerial view shows a Ukrainian naval vessel and a nearby building burning.
A satellite image shows a Ukrainian naval vessel and a nearby building burning in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Planet Labs PBC / Associated Press)

More than 7 million people have been displaced within Ukraine, according to the United Nations, and an additional 4.5 million have fled abroad.

Valeria Miller and her 84-year-old grandmother were among those leaving the country Sunday, finally crossing into Romania after a long and costly journey from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.

Miller, who lives in Michigan, had been in Kherson taking care of her grandmother, who has dementia and cannot walk, when the war broke out and Russian troops occupied their city. The pair hunkered down for weeks, but when images emerged of civilians who had been executed in Bucha, north of Kyiv, Miller decided it was time to leave.

"I got scared, really scared," she said. "Hearing of the torture and killing of innocent people, it makes you move. The last thing I wanted was to die there."

But finding a way out was a challenge. A bus from Kherson to Odesa, a key stop on the journey to Romania, usually cost $10 and took four hours. Miller had to pay a taxi driver $600, and the ride took 12 hours.

Finally they reached the Romanian border city of Isaccea, where a fireman and border agent lifted her grandmother onto a bus packed with refugees bound for Bucharest. By the time the bus headed out, most of the passengers were dozing.

The danger of staying in Ukraine's besieged cities was emphasized by Friday’s missile strike at a train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk that killed at least 57 and left more than 100 wounded. The station was crowded with civilians fleeing the Donbas.

Ukraine and its Western allies blamed Russia for the deadly strike. Moscow denied carrying out the attack.

Zelensky vowed that those responsible for the railway strike would be discovered and would face war-crimes charges. The Ukrainian president has made a similar pledge after the killings of civilians came to light in Bucha.

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

Zelensky has said he expects to uncover more evidence of atrocities committed against civilians in parts of the country previously controlled by Russian troops.

Two people help a woman in a wheelchair. A bus sits nearby.

Zelensky's rhetoric rose to Churchillian heights after a meeting Saturday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The two leaders strolled 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.

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 president, whose global popularity has soared since the war began.

After Johnson’s visit, Britain said it was sending 120 armored vehicles and missile systems to Ukraine, including rockets that could target the Russian ships stationed in the Sea of Azov that have bombarded cities along Ukraine's southern coast.

Zelensky has thanked Western powers for their donations, but has repeatedly said that weapons and other equipment won't shift the war's outcome. "Of course it's not enough," he told the Associated Press in an interview Saturday.

In the interview, Zelensky called again for a complete embargo on Russian oil and gas, which he called the sources of Moscow’s “self-confidence and impunity.”

While the European Union took steps to ban the import of Russian coal, weaning itself off hydrocarbons will be much harder, given that its members rely on Russia for roughly a quarter of their oil and more than 40% of their natural gas. Nations, notably Germany, which is even more reliant on Russian fuel, have warned that abruptly suspending such purchases could send their economies into free fall.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said last week that the EU has paid Russia more than $38 billion for energy supplies since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. In contrast, the EU has sent $1 billion to Ukraine to help fund its war efforts.

While many in the east and south have tried to flee in recent days, fearful of the prospect of renewed hostilities, some said they were committed to staying put.

In the southern port city of Mykolaiv residents took to the streets Sunday, strolling through elegant parks and boulevards.

A wide-eyed woman in a dark basement holds a baby.
A woman and 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, Cole from Isaccea and Linthicum from Mexico City. Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell in Kyiv contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.