Death toll from Russian apartment strike hits 40; Kyiv, Moscow signal long, bloody fight ahead

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Hope for a cease-fire between Moscow and Kyiv faded further Monday as Ukrainian leaders vowed revenge for Russia’s weekend airstrike on an apartment building in Dnipro that killed at least 40 civilians, while rescue workers searched for dozens more feared to be trapped beneath the rubble.

Around-the-clock rescue efforts in the southeastern Ukrainian city dragged through a third day amid signs that the Kremlin intends to escalate its brutal attacks on civilian targets and launch a potentially major new offensive against Ukrainian forces.

Western analysts believe Moscow is laying the groundwork for a “protracted war” that could grind on for months or longer. Russian military commanders apparently believe they have a window in Ukraine’s east to reverse the gains of Kyiv’s counteroffensive late last year.

As a bloody, drawn-out war looks more likely, the West is grappling with the types and amounts of military aid to provide to Ukrainian forces while limiting the risk of a dangerous escalation with Moscow.

The U.S. and Britain have ramped up aid packages in the past several weeks.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made headlines Sunday by saying the U.S. has expanded combat training for Ukrainian soldiers in Germany with a goal of getting a battalion of about 500 troops back onto the battlefield in the next five to eight weeks.

SEE ALSO: ‘Burn in hell, Russian murderers’: Ukraine mourns after more deadly apartment building attack

Other Western powers appear more cautious.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht resigned Monday after making a string of public relations missteps and bearing the brunt of criticism for an apparent reluctance of Berlin to send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Some analysts say Chancellor Olaf Scholz has a chance to redefine Germany’s role as a leader in providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.

Ukrainian leaders say the help can’t come soon enough.

Bloody fighting continued Monday in Ukraine’s Donetsk province, and Russian troops reportedly escalated a shelling campaign in the city of Kherson. Local officials said Russian shells struck a hospital and a children’s disability center.

Those attacks came on the heels of Saturday’s airstrike on the Dnipro apartment complex, home to about 1,700 civilians.

Russian forces have hit Ukrainian civilian targets throughout the nearly 11-month-old war, but the apartment attack has struck a nerve inside Ukraine.

In an address Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy decried the “evil” attacks on civilians and urged Russian citizens to stand up against their own military.

“I want to say to all those in Russia — and from Russia — who even now could not utter even a few words of condemnation of this terror, even though they see and know everything perfectly well,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

“Your cowardly silence, your attempt to wait out what is happening will only end with those same terrorists coming after you one day,” he said. “Evil is very sensitive to cowardice. Evil always remembers those who fear it or try to bargain with it. And when it comes after you, there will be no one to protect you.”

The Ukrainian president vowed that “everyone will be held to account for terror” attacks against the Ukrainian people.

He issued the harsh warning just a few weeks after Moscow and Kyiv showed signs of taking baby steps toward potential peace talks.

Ukraine publicly insisted that any peace talks be predicated on Russia’s return of all Ukrainian territory it had seized, including Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, called for a temporary cease-fire this month to mark Orthodox Christmas, although Mr. Zelenskyy and his Western allies rejected the offer as a cynical ploy to buy time for Russia to refit its troops.

Although the two sides were miles apart on the terms, the apparent openness to at least address the concept of negotiations sparked glimmers of hope that the war could end this year.

Dragging on

Specialists now say the signs point in the other direction.

In a detailed analysis Sunday, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Russia appears to be preparing for a long slog in Ukraine.

“The Kremlin is likely preparing to conduct a decisive strategic action in the next six months intended to regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current string of operational successes,” the think tank said. “While Putin has not changed his objectives for the war, there is emerging evidence that he is changing fundamental aspects of Russia’s approach to the war by undertaking several new lines of effort.”

Notably, Moscow is shifting its force generation operations to include more mobilization of reserve forces and perhaps even a large-scale draft, the institute said.

Russian military leaders also appear to be strategically keeping some mobilized personnel in reserve for future campaigns rather than rushing troops to the front lines, the institute said.

It added that Mr. Putin is putting public pressure on Russia’s defense industrial base to ramp up the production of weapons, drones, ammunition and other materials.

Analysts said the recent installment of Gen. Valery Gerasimov as Mr. Putin’s point man in Ukraine suggests that the Kremlin wants greater centralized control over the war effort rather than relying on theater commanders who have not achieved the desired results.

Kremlin officials warned the U.S. and Britain about their decisions to ramp up arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Britain announced over the weekend that it would deliver 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the U.S. recently sent Patriot missile defense systems and Bradley fighting vehicles.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the British vehicles will be destroyed.

“They are using [Ukraine] as a tool to achieve their anti-Russian goals. … These tanks are burning and will burn just like the rest,” Mr. Peskov said, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, the West may get a deeper glimpse inside the operations of Russia’s Wagner Group, the shadowy mercenary army controlled by business magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin that is playing an increasingly prominent role in the Ukraine campaign.

The outfit has claimed credit for the recent capture of Soledar, though Ukraine insists its forces are still battling for control of the city.

Andrei Medvedev, who claims to be a former Wagner commander, recently fled Russia and is seeking asylum in Norway, according to media reports. He claims to have witnessed several extrajudicial killings by Wagner fighters and is believed to be the first Wagner commander to have fled to Europe, the Moscow Times reported Monday.

Mr. Medvedev reportedly dodged rifle fire and Russian tracking dogs during his trek to the Russia-Norway border.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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