A 13km-long Russian military convoy has been identified rumbling through the east of the country as Ukraine readies itself for “big battles” in this next phase of the war.
Satellite images from private US firm Maxar Technologies show armoured vehicles, trucks with towed artillery and support equipment heading south towards the Donbas region.
Russia is seeking to establish a land corridor from Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, and Donbas, which is partly held by Moscow-backed separatists, Britain’s defence ministry said.
The Russian armed forces are also looking to strengthen troop numbers with personnel discharged from military service since 2012, the UK said in its update.
Ukraine says Russia is gathering its forces in the east for a major assault and has urged people to flee.
Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhaylo Podolyak told a national TV station that the country was “ready for big battles” against Russia.
It comes as mounting civilian casualties have triggered widespread international condemnation and new sanctions.
Already the Ukrainians have collected 1200 civilian bodies in the region encompassing the capital Kyiv and documented 5600 war crimes allegedly committed by the Russian invaders.
In a recent discovery, a grave with dozens of bodies was found in a ditch near a petrol station near Buzova, a village near Kyiv.
“Right now, as we are speaking, we are digging out two bodies of villagers, who were killed. Other details I cannot disclose,” said Taras Didych, head of the Dmytrivka community that includes Buzova.
“There are other people who we cannot find. They could be in different places, but this doesn’t lessen the pain of the loss of loved ones.”
Moscow has rejected accusations of war crimes by Ukraine and Western countries and denied targeting civilians.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address late on Saturday Russia’s use of force was “a catastrophe that will inevitably hit everyone.”
He said Ukraine was ready to fight for victory while looking for a diplomatic end to the war.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said he expected Russia’s newly appointed general, Aleksandr Dvornikov, to authorise more brutality against the Ukrainian civilian population.
Mr Sullivan said the US would supply Ukraine with what it needed to fight the Russians.
“We’re going to get Ukraine the weapons it needs to beat back the Russians to stop them from taking more cities and towns,” Mr Sullivan told US broadcaster ABC News.
Mr Zelensky has also renewed his appeal to Western allies for a total ban on Russian energy products.
The European Union, which on Friday banned Russian coal imports among other products, has yet to touch oil and gas imports from Russia.
Ukraine itself late on Saturday announced a full ban on imports from Russia, its key trading partner before the war with some $US6 billion ($8 billion) in annual imports.
US President Joe Biden will meet virtually with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and bring up the issue of Russian energy imports by India.
Lured by steep discounts following sanctions on Russian entities, India has bought at least 13 million barrels of Russian crude oil since the country invaded Ukraine in late February.
That compared with 16 million barrels for the whole of last year, data compiled by Reuters shows.
The White House said Mr Biden would “continue our close consultations on the consequences of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine and mitigating its destabilising impact on global food supply and commodity markets”.
Daleep Singh, US Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics, who visited India recently, said the US will not set any “red line” for India on its energy imports from Russia but does not want to see a “rapid acceleration” in purchases.
Austrian chancellor to face Putin
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer will be the first European Union leader to have a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The Austria Press Agency reported that Mr Nehammer told reporters in Vienna on Sunday he planned to make the journey to Russia on Monday.
It follows a trip on Saturday to Kyiv, where he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
APA reported that Mr Nehammer aims to encourage dialogue between Ukraine and Russia and also address Russian “war crimes” in his meeting with Mr Putin.
Austria is a member of the European Union and has backed the 27-member bloc’s sanctions against Russia although it so far has opposed cutting off deliveries of Russian gas.
The country is militarily neutral and is not a member of NATO.
Mr Nehammer said he was taking the trip on his own initiative and that he had consulted with the European Union’s top officials.
He said that he also informed Mr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Pope urges Easter truce
Pope Francis has called for an Easter truce in Ukraine and condemned the “folly of war” as he led Palm Sunday services in St. Peter’s Square before an audience of tens of thousands of people.
He also urged negotiations to find a solution to the conflict. In an apparent reference to Russia, he said: “What kind of victory would be one that plants a flag on a heap of rubble?”
Francis spoke at the end of a Palm Sunday service, the first since 2019 in which the public had been allowed back in the square following two years of scaled-back services because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Some in the crowd put small Ukrainian flags at the tip of olive branches and a woman who read one of the prayers near the altar was dressed in the flag’s blue and yellow colours.
“Put the weapons down! Let An Easter truce start. But not to rearm and resume combat but a truce to reach peace through real negotiations open to some sacrifices for the good of the people,” Francis said.
Francis earlier evoked the horrors of war in his homily, speaking of “mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons … refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms … young people deprived of a future …. soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters.”
Since the war began, Francis has only mentioned Russia specifically in prayers, such as during a global event for peace on March 25.
But he has referred to Russia by using terms such as invasion and aggression.
Palm Sunday commemorates the day the Gospel says Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed by the people, only to be crucified five days later.
It marks the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church on April 17 this year.
Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later, on April 24.