DNIPRO, Ukraine — As Russia sharply rejected President Joe Biden’s description of its wartime acts as “genocide,” Moscow on Wednesday asserted it had captured more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops in Mariupol, dealing what would be a heavy blow to defenders’ desperate efforts to hold the strategic southern port city.
The Russian defense ministry’s claim of a mass surrender by hundreds of Ukrainian troops could not be verified, and Ukraine said the battle for Mariupol continued.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, meanwhile, fired back after Biden said Tuesday for the first time that Russia was committing genocide in Ukraine, telling reporters the remark was “hardly acceptable from a president of the United States, a country that has committed well-known crimes in recent times.”
As a seventh week of warfare drew to a close, Russian artillery pounded cities and towns in preparation for what is expected to be an all-out offensive in the country’s eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas. Satellite imagery from the U.S. firm Maxar Technologies has shown a growing buildup of Russian troops and heavy equipment in at least three likely staging grounds for an assault.
Western military officials and analysts have predicted a ferocious new phase of combat when that offensive begins, but question whether Moscow’s military command can pivot away from previous strategic stumbles.
“An inability to cohere and coordinate military activity has hampered Russia’s invasion to date,” said an assessment Wednesday by British military intelligence. A day earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the war was proceeding as planned and expressed confidence his army would achieve its aim of expanding the territory Russia controls in the east of Ukraine.
In a continuing show of support for Ukraine from front-line NATO countries, the presidents of Poland and the three Baltic states arrived in Kyiv on Wednesday for talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Ukrainian officials took the visiting presidents to see firsthand one of the Kyiv area’s worst-damaged towns: Borodyanka, where Russian shelling and bombardment destroyed a number of high-rise apartment buildings, among other structures. Authorities say dozens were killed but have provided no definitive casualty count.
In Moscow, a defense ministry spokesman said 1,026 members of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, including more than 160 officers, had voluntarily laid down their arms as a result of “successful offensives” by Russian troops and militia allies in Mariupol. It was not clear from the announcement when the alleged surrender had occurred.
On Monday, the brigade had said in a Facebook post that it was running out of ammunition and had suffered a “mountain” of wounded. The Russian defense ministry said 151 Ukrainian soldiers were treated on the spot for injuries or hospitalized.
Ukrainian military officials did not immediately comment on the Russian claim, saying only that the fight for the city continued.
Many previous Russian claims, including weeks of the Kremlin’s insistence before the war that Russia had no plans to invade, have been proven false, and Moscow has justified the war with an elaborate campaign of disinformation, including claims that Ukraine is controlled by Nazis.
If borne out, however, the episode would represent one of the war’s largest single captures of Ukrainian troops.
Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, is considered a strategic prize because it offers control of a land corridor between Russian-held territory and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. The city, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000, has been battered by daily Russian bombardment since the earliest days following the Feb. 24 invasion, and its mayor says an estimated 20,000 people have been killed.
The monthlong Russian occupation of several Kyiv suburbs and satellite towns left a gruesome trail of death and destruction, triggering an international outcry. Russia denies its troops committed atrocities against civilians, but international investigators have been amassing evidence of possible war crimes including execution-style killings and rapes.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a new report Wednesday that Russia had shown a “clear pattern” of having broken international humanitarian law. At the same time, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan, visiting the devastated Kyiv suburb of Bucha, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as calling Ukraine a “crime scene.”
The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office said Wednesday that nearly 6,000 war-crime complaints had been lodged, and Zelenskyy, in his overnight video address, expressed outrage over Putin’s claim a day earlier that alleged atrocities in Bucha were “fake.”
“There are not as many ‘specialists in staging’ in the world as there are murderers in the Russian army,” Zelenskyy said, describing it as “inevitable” that Russia would be held accountable.
Prior to Russia’s claim concerning Mariupol, Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya who has joined in the invading force, went on the messaging app Telegram to urge remaining Ukrainian forces to “end this pointless resistance.” Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelenskyy, said on Twitter that defenders were fighting “for each meter of the city.”
Another presidential aide, Oleksiy Arestovych, said online that elements of the Ukrainian brigade in question, in a “risky” maneuver, had managed to link up with other Ukrainian forces. He did not comment on the alleged surrender.
Russian state television showed images of what it said were the surrendering Ukrainian marines being marched down a road.
In the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, Ukrainian officials have for days been urging civilians to leave in advance of expected widespread fighting. Departing involves deadly dangers, however; nearly 60 people were killed last week in a Russian missile strike on the railway station in the city of Kramatorsk, which was full of people trying to flee.
Finding a way out of the war zone is getting increasingly difficult. On Wednesday, the deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said it had been impossible to open any humanitarian corridors for the day because Russian forces were violating local truces and blocking buses sent to evacuate civilians.
Despite growing fears over a Russian push to seize more eastern Ukrainian territory, there was little outward sign of concern in Dnipro, a central city that is the country’s fourth-largest and a stop for those fleeing the Donbas. Shops and restaurants were open, with roads packed with cars and traffic jams on major intersections.
Still, a train from the west into the city was mostly empty, with few traveling toward the zone where battles are expected to occur. Another train hauling a pair of tanks moved along the tracks, heading somewhere toward the eastern front lines.
Bulos reported from Dnipro and King from Warsaw. Los Angeles Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Kyiv and Carolyn Cole in Dnipro contributed to this report.