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'At this moment, Russians don’t have the forces, they don’t have the equipment and they don’t have the people to take the city of Dnipro,' says Mykhailo Lysenko, the city's deputy mayor.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Russia has begun a broad attack on eastern Ukraine, seizing one town and striking multiple targets in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared to be the start of “the Battle of Donbas.”

Russian troops were attempting to advance on Tuesday across a front line hundreds of kilometres long. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that “another stage of this operation is beginning,” with Russian forces intending to “liberate” the entire eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In his office in the fortified city hall of the strategic eastern city of Dnipro, deputy mayor Mykhailo Lysenko predicted the new Russian offensive would fail, just like the effort to seize the capital. Troops and equipment involved in the assault on Kyiv have been withdrawn from northern Ukraine and repositioned on the eastern front over the past 2½ weeks.

“At this moment, Russians don’t have the forces, they don’t have the equipment and they don’t have the people to take the city of Dnipro,” Mr. Lysenko said, sitting beneath photographs of his heroes, Ronald Reagan and Pope Francis. “The maximum they can do is deliver cowardly rocket attacks from aircraft, from warships in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and from Belarus.”

He said Dnipro and the surrounding area were being targeted by Russian rockets “every night” – air raid sirens are such a feature of life here that residents barely notice them any more – and that two people had been killed in the city since the start of the war almost two months ago.

The continued supply of Western arms will be key to minimizing Ukrainian losses in the expanded battle for the east of the country, Mr. Lysenko said. He called on Canada, which has promised $500-million in military assistance, to supply Ukraine’s armed forces with equipment such as artillery, armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft systems now. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged on Tuesday to send heavy artillery weapons to Ukraine, but he offered no details.

On Tuesday, Russian forces made their first major gain of the new offensive, capturing the Luhansk region town of Kreminna, which had a prewar population of 18,000. Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk, told a virtual news conference that Russian forces were attacking “on all sides.” He said 80 per cent of the region’s prewar population had fled, but that 70,000 civilians remained.

Mr. Gaidai said it was “impossible” to count the number of dead in the region “due to terrible and difficult circumstances.”

Russia also claimed to have struck dozens of military facilities around Ukraine.

Meanwhile, an unknown number of Ukrainian fighters continued to hold out in the Azovstal steel factory in the southern port city of Mariupol and ignored another Russian ultimatum to surrender. The city, which is in the Donetsk region and had a prewar population of almost 450,000, has been almost completely destroyed by Russia’s 55-day assault. Mr. Lysenko said the deputy mayor of Mariupol had told him that at least 18,000 civilians had died in the city. “That’s a minimum,” he said.

While the nearest front line is about 150 kilometres away, Dnipro, which had a prewar population of one million, is considered the linchpin of Ukraine’s efforts to defend the east of the country.

“Because it’s between Kharkiv and Donbas and Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro is the main hub for repairs, for logistics, for humanitarian aid in the east,” said Mikhaylo Kamchatnyi, a political analyst who last month moved with his family from Kharkiv to Dnipro because of the fierce Russian attack on his hometown in the northeast. “Right now, Dnipro is more important than Kyiv.”

It’s a role the city has played since 2014, ever since Moscow-backed militias – aided by regular Russian soldiers – seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. That conflict, which claimed more than 14,000 lives, had cooled considerably in recent years, but set the stage for the current war, which began Feb. 24, three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the two “people’s republics” as independent.

“For the city of Dnipro, this is not the first but the second war,” Mr. Lysenko said.

Dnipro, like other cities in Ukraine, uses sandbags to protect important historical monuments and architecture.

Dnipro embraces its task with solemn pride. A large sign in its central Garden of Heroes square declares that the city is Ukraine’s “stronghold,” and the plaza is filled with monuments to Ukrainian troops who died fighting for Donbas.

Mr. Lysenko said 60,000 local residents had joined the country’s reserves, the Territorial Defence Forces, since the start of the wider war. That has caused some management problems for the city, he said, since almost half of Dnipro’s garbage and delivery truck drivers were now driving military vehicles instead.

The city is bracing for an escalated Russian assault. Government buildings and monuments have been covered with sandbags, and soldiers at cement checkpoints examine the documents of anyone entering or leaving. Although shops and restaurants continue to operate, many have boarded up their windows.

Mr. Lysenko said that while half of Dnipro’s population fled the city at the start of the war, a large number have returned to their homes since the failure of the Russian attack on Kyiv.

Capturing the shifting mood, the longest line in the city on Tuesday was not for food or medicine but to buy newly issued stamps that depict a Ukrainian soldier defiantly giving the middle finger to the Russian warship Moskva – capturing a famous incident early in the war when Ukrainian defenders of the Black Sea outpost of Snake Island refused an order from the Moskva to surrender.

The guided missile cruiser, which was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, sank last week in one of the biggest Russian losses of the war. Ukraine says the Moskva sank after being hit by two anti-ship missiles.

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