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Russia laments 'significant losses' as Ukraine braces for major offensive

·4 min read

By Natalia Zinets

LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Russia on Thursday appeared to give the most damning assessment so far of its invasion, describing the "tragedy" of mounting troop losses and the economic hit as Ukrainians were evacuated from eastern cities before an anticipated major offensive.

Moscow's six-week long incursion has seen more than 4 million people flee abroad, killed or injured thousands, left a quarter of the population homeless, turned cities into rubble and led to Russia's near total isolation on the world stage.

In a symbolic move, the United Nations General Assembly suspended it from the U.N. Human Rights Council, expressing "grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis." Russia then quit the council.

Russia has previously acknowledged its attack has not progressed as quickly as it wanted, but on Thursday Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov lamented the rising death toll.

"We have significant losses of troops," he told Sky News. "It's a huge tragedy for us."

Russia is facing its most difficult economic situation for three decades due to unprecedented Western sanctions, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said earlier.

Russia says it launched what it calls a "special military operation" on Feb. 24 to demilitarise and "denazify" Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext.

Following new measures announced this week in response to the killing of civilians in the town of Bucha that were widely condemned by the West as war crimes, Ukraine wants allies to stop buying Russian oil and gas amid divisions in Europe over how far to go on energy restrictions.

"Once and for all, we can teach Russia and any other potential aggressors that those who choose war always lose," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Greek parliament.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians and says images of bodies in Bucha were staged to justify more sanctions against Moscow and derail peace negotiations.

An EU ban on purchases of Russian coal is set to be pushed back to mid-August following pressure from Germany, two sources told Reuters.

And Ukraine accused Hungary of undermining EU unity after Budapest broke ranks with the bloc by saying it was prepared to pay roubles for Russian gas, a Kremlin demand that most in the West had resisted.

On the battlefield, Ukraine says following a withdrawal from Kyiv's outskirts, Russia is regrouping to try to gain full control over the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been partly held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

The besieged southern port of Mariupol, where the mayor said over 100,000 people were still trapped, was also a target.

"Evacuate! The chances of saving yourself and your family from Russian death are dwindling every day," Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

Authorities in Dnipro, a city in central-eastern Ukraine, also urged women, children and the elderly to leave.

TRADING ACCUSATIONS

Both sides continued to trade accusations, with Moscow opening a criminal investigation into allegations by a Russian soldier that he was beaten and received death threats while being held in Ukraine as a prisoner of war.

Separately, a social media video verified by Reuters and geolocated to an area west of Kyiv appears to show Ukrainian forces shooting and killing a captured and badly wounded Russian soldier.

In the city of Kharkiv, at least one person was killed and 14 wounded in shelling on Thursday, the regional governor said, while Ukraine's prosecutor general reported 26 bodies had been found under two ruined buildings in the town of Borodianka.

Reuters could not immediately verify the accounts.

NATO members have agreed to strengthen support to Ukraine and the United States is looking into what new weapons it could send as Zelenskiy's government says starving Moscow's war machine is the only way to bring it to a settlement at on-and-off peace talks.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kyiv had presented Moscow with a draft peace deal that contained "unacceptable" elements and deviated from previously agreed proposals.

Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters Lavrov was not directly involved in negotiations and his statements were "of purely propagandistic significance" aimed at diverting attention from the killings in Bucha.

On Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw the body of a man in Bucha with a rope tied around his feet and a charred hole in his forehead, one of at least five victims shot through the head documented by the news organization.

Since Russian troops pulled back last week, Ukrainian officials have said hundreds of civilians have been found dead.

Bucha's mayor has said dozens were the victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by Russian troops. Reuters could not independently verify those figures.

Media outlets including Reuters have seen satellite images released by a private security company that appear to show bodies in the streets while Bucha was still occupied by Russia, contradicting Moscow's assertion that Ukraine staged the bodies after retaking the town.

Accounts by at least a dozen residents of one apartment complex in Bucha painted a picture of violence and intimidation by Russian soldiers.

The mutilated bodies of one resident of the complex and another local were discovered in a stairwell.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Tomasz Janowski, Frances Kerry and Costas Pitas; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Catherine Evans and Daniel Wallis)