Russia steps up bombardment of Ukraine’s cities, demands energy payment in roubles

US President Joe Biden is expected to announce more sanctions against Moscow at the NATO summit on Thursday, March 24, as, four weeks into the Ukraine war, Russia doubles down on its bombardment of Ukraine’s cities. In the past 48 hours, some 250 bombers are day by day taking part in the relentless blitz, compared with the previous 60. They are now focusing on Kiev, Chernihiv and Kharkiv, where fierce resistance has contained the Russian forces’ advance. None has fallen – any more that the southern port of Mariupol, where a whole city is being ground down to rubble. The UN says as many as 10 million people have fled their homes – either across the border or to other parts of Ukraine.

Western intelligence sources report that the Russian air force is now mounting most of its air raids from neighboring Belarus, to evade the punishment inflicted by the effective anti-air fire from Ukrainian forces.

US military sources estimate that the Russian invaders have so far used up 50pc of their cruise missiles, although most of their stocks of surface-to air and air-to-air missiles remain intact.

However, combat manpower is more of a problem. Moscow continues to call up 17-18 young men for sending to Ukraine’s battlefronts after barely three weeks of basic training. It is not clear how well they are able to perform in combat. NATO estimated on Wednesday that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the Ukraine war in which fierce resistance has robbed Moscow of a rapid victory. These figures are based on Ukrainian estimates. Moscow has not released up-to-date data although disclosing the deaths of four generals.

The disappearance of Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close personal friend of President Vladimir Putin, who has not been seen since March 11, has prompted intense speculation in the West. Guesses range from his possible ouster over Putin’s frustration with the slow progress of the war, to his having been taken ill with a heart condition. He is not the only missing figure. Viktor Zolotov, commander of the National Guard, has not been seen in public for two weeks.

Reacting to the disastrous impact of US and Western sanctions on the Russian currency, the Kremlin on Thursday ordered Europeans to pay for their gas and oil orders in roubles or else raise its value. On Thursday, too, Russia blocked local internet users to Google News Service for allegedly running false news throughout the Ukraine war. UK PM Boris Johnson announced the release of 6,000 anti-tank rockets for the Ukraine army as well as 25 million pounds sterling in aid.

In an usual request, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenksy appealed to President Biden to waive sanctions for the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (who also holds Israeli nationality) in view of his key role in the informal talks taking place with Putin for an end to hostilities.

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