Russia has continued shelling and launching missile strikes in Ukraine’s northern city of Chernihiv despite pledging it would reduce military activity around the area as Ukraine’s military dismissed the Russian promises and braced for further heavy fighting in the east.
In an overnight video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was seeing a build-up of Russian forces in the southeast as they prepare for new strikes, while Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses were headed to the besieged port city of Mariupol on March 31 in an attempt to evacuate civilians trapped by weeks of heavy fighting.
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Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on March 31 that Russian troops continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units and “heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”
Separately, a British intelligence chief said that demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine were refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.
Jeremy Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency, made the remarks at a speech in the Australian capital, Canberra.
He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion.
“It’s clear he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people. He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would galvanize. He underplayed the economic consequences of the sanctions regime, and he overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory,” Fleming said.
Meanwhile, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters that Putin has been misled by advisers.
“We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth,” Bedingfield said during a press briefing.
In separate video addresses on March 31, Zelenskiy told Australian and Dutch lawmakers that fresh and stronger sanctions against Russia were needed to step up the pressure on Moscow over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He urged Dutch lawmakers in particular to “stop all trade with Russia.”
Russia told Ukraine on March 29 it would curtail operations near the capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv “to increase mutual trust” for peace talks after the two sides met face-to-face in Istanbul.
Talks were set to resume March 31 by video, according to Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia, though analysts have questioned whether Moscow is sincere in making progress.
“We don’t believe anyone, not a single beautiful phrase,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation late on March 30, adding that he believes Russian troops are regrouping to strike the eastern Donbas region.
“We will not give anything away. We will fight for every meter of our territory,” Zelenskiy said, reiterating his call for Western military aid.
“If we really are fighting for freedom and in defense of democracy together, then we have a right to demand help in this difficult turning point. Tanks, aircraft, artillery systems. Freedom should be armed no worse than tyranny,” Zelenskiy said.
On March 31, Zelenskiy told Australia’s parliament that fresh and stronger sanctions against Russia were needed to step up the pressure on Moscow over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Zelenskiy warned in his video address that if Russia was not held responsible, then other states with “similar aspirations” will follow suit, threatening the rest of the world.
The Ukrainian president said that if Russia had been punished for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, then the invasion might never have occurred.
“If the world had punished Russia in 2014 for what it did, there wouldn’t be this invasion in Ukraine in 2022,” he said. “So the unpunished evil comes back.”
Zelenskiy accused Russia of “nuclear blackmail” and said more needs to be done to hold Moscow accountable.
WATCH: Ukrainian forces recaptured the town of Trostyanets in eastern Ukraine, located just 40 kilometers from the border with Russia.
The Australian government announced it will provide a further $25 million in military support to Ukraine.
“The people of Australia stand with Ukraine in your fight for survival,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Zelenskiy. “Yes, you have our prayers but you also have our weapons.”
Australia has already supplied defense equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as imposing a ban on exports of alumina and aluminum ores, including bauxite, to Russia.
The additional support will bring Australia’s total military assistance for Ukraine so far to $116 million.
Australia has also imposed a total of 476 sanctions on 443 individuals, including businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and 33 entities, including most of Russia’s banking sector and all entities responsible for the country’s sovereign debt.
WATCH: Ukrainian forces have liberated the village of Kukhari outside Kyiv. But Russian forces have continued to bombard the village with artillery and aircraft.
Earlier, Zelenskiy and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed specific defensive support, a new package of sanctions against Russia, and financial and humanitarian aid in an hourlong call.
Biden and Zelenskiy also discussed the critical effect weapons supplies has had on the conflict and continued efforts to identify additional capabilities to help Ukraine’s military defend the country.
A Pentagon official said not all the weaponry Biden promised in mid-March had been delivered yet.
Celeste Wallander, an assistant secretary of defense, told a congressional hearing that a package that includes 100 kamikaze-like Switchblade drones is in the process of being delivered.
Wallander said the United States also is working on getting countries that have Soviet-made S-300 anti-aircraft batteries to send them to Ukraine. One of the countries it has approached is Slovakia, which wants to replace its S-300s with more modern U.S.-made Patriot missile batteries, she said.
A delegation of Ukrainian lawmakers visited Washington on March 30 to push for more U.S. assistance, saying their country needs more military equipment, more financial help, and tougher sanctions against Russia.
“We need to kick Russian soldiers off our land, and for that we need all, all possible weapons,” Ukrainian parliament member Anastasia Radina said at a news conference at the Ukrainian Embassy.
In the nearly five weeks since the invasion began, Russian forces have been halted on many fronts by stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference on March 31 that Russia was not pulling back its troops like it said it would, and was instead repositioning them. He said he expected the troop movements to result in “additional offensive actions.”
“According to our intelligence, Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning. Russia is trying to regroup, resupply, and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region” in eastern Ukraine, Stoltenberg said.
“At the same time, Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities. So, we can expect additional offensive actions, bringing even more suffering,” he added.
British military intelligence said on March 31 that Russia continued shelling and launching missile strikes in Ukraine’s northern city of Chernihiv, despite its pledge to reduce military activity around the area.
Russian troops continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement. “Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”
Heavy fighting continued in the strategic port city of Mariupol, a key objective of Russian forces, the ministry said, adding that Ukrainian forces remain in control of the city center.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Russia’s pledge to curtail operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv was not true.
“The whole night we listened to sirens, to rocket attacks and we listened to huge explosions east of Kyiv and north of Kyiv,” Klitschko said in a video address to EU regional officials. “There are immense battles there, people died, still die.”
Russian troops also stepped up their attacks around the eastern city of Izyum and the eastern Donetsk region after redeploying some units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said on March 31 that the Russian and Ukrainian economies will contract by 10 percent and 20 percent, respectively, this year as the war between the two countries causes “the greatest supply shock” in half a century.
The London-based EBRD is the first international financial institution to update its guidance since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine last month.
Before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the EBRD had been forecasting growth of 3.5 percent for Ukraine and 3.0 percent for Russia.
The latest prognoses “assume that a cease-fire is brokered within a couple of months, followed soon after by the start of a major reconstruction effort in Ukraine,” EBRD said on March 31.
With reporting by Current Time, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, RFE/RL’s Russian Service, AP, AFP, and Reuters