President Volodymyr Zelensky, bolstered by an influx of heavy weapons from Western nations, expressed increasing confidence on Saturday that Ukraine was prepared to defeat Russian forces in what is expected to be a long and brutal battle for control of the eastern industrial heartland.
“We will be able to show the occupiers that the day when they will be forced to leave Ukraine is approaching,” Mr. Zelensky said in an overnight address to the nation.
The statement seemed to mark a decisive shift for Mr. Zelensky, who has spent months begging and shaming allies around the world to provide Ukraine with longer-range, heavy weapons to repel Russian forces as they assault the east in the latest offensive in the two-month-old war.
At a news conference on Saturday, Mr. Zelensky said that the American secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, and the defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, planned to visit Kyiv, the capital, on Sunday to discuss the “military assistance we need.” They would be the highest-ranking American officials to visit since the invasion began. The Pentagon and the State Department declined to comment.
World leaders “should not come to us with empty hands, not just presents and cakes,” Mr. Zelensky said, but with “specific weapons.”
Military analysts said that the tanks, howitzers, deadly drones, armored vehicles and mountains of ammunition pouring into Ukraine from Western allies have been a significant factor in helping the country’s troops fend off the larger and better-equipped Russian military.
Despite increased fighting, Russian forces have made “no major gains” in the past 24 hours, as Ukrainian counterattacks continue to hinder their efforts, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Saturday, in its latest asssement of the war.
The ministry said that, despite Russia’s claim that it had conquered the heavily battered southern port of Mariupol, where the last remaining Ukrainian fighters have holed up in a steel plant with civilians, “heavy fighting” continued to frustrate Russian attempts to capture the city, slowing their progress into the Donbas region.
The fighting in the eastern theater has increased the sense of urgency among Western allies to bolster Ukraine’s defenses with more powerful arms. The terrain there is mostly open farmland, which tends to favor tanks and other heavy weapons over the quick-hit, guerrilla-style tactics that the Ukrainians employed to such devastating effect in the country’s north.
Canada on Friday announced that it had delivered heavy artillery, including M777 howitzers and anti-armor ammunition, to Ukrainian forces in conjunction with the United States.
The shipment came after President Biden announced another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine on Thursday, saying he wanted to send the “unmistakable message” to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, that he would “never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine.”
At Saturday’s news conference, Mr. Zelensky reiterated his willingness to meet directly with Mr. Putin, saying while “I don’t want” to meet with him, “I have to see the president” in order to end the war. He also appealed to the Russian people, saying, “Living in the Russian Federation is like virtual reality, like a video game. Come back to the world. It’s more beautiful and more truthful.”
While Russia has failed to make any significant territorial gains since launching its renewed assault in Donbas this week, the Ukrainian defense intelligence agency warned that Russian forces were trying to identify the Ukrainian military’s most vulnerable points in order to mount a larger offensive. It also said that some of the elite Russian troops who had been fighting in Mariupol had begun moving east to join the battle in Donbas.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said Ukraine had managed to deliver weapons via helicopter under cover of darkness to the steel plant in Mariupol, The Associated Press reported.
The city has been the scene of growing desperation for the 100,000 people who are trapped there and struggling to survive under Russian occupation, said Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. On Saturday, an aide to the city’s mayor said that Russian forces had thwarted the latest attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol.
Most of the fighting over the past week has been for control of towns and villages directly on the front line, which stretches across 300 miles in Ukraine’s east and includes many communities already devastated by weeks of war.
In villages and towns largely in the country’s north that have been retaken by Ukrainian troops, officials have been working with international investigators to document violence against civilians.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said she was examining more than 8,000 reported atrocities, including summary executions, sexual violence and the forced deportation of children to Russia.
Moscow shifted its focus to Donbas after failing to seize Kyiv in the north, where Russian troops were hampered by logistical and tactical problems as well as sagging morale. Those issues are likely to persist in the battle for Donbas, according to independent analysts, who said Russia did not adequately rest, reinforce or resupply its troops before beginning its latest assault.
While Russia has been focused on seizing the east, at least six people were killed and 18 were wounded on Saturday when two cruise missiles struck a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of the southern city of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said. Among the dead was a 3-month-old child, said Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential administration.
Mr. Zelensky reacted angrily to the attack, denouncing Mr. Putin as “this bastard” and asking “what sort of God they believe in” that the Russians could kill a 3-month-old.
Photographs and video from the scene appeared to show extensive damage to a large housing complex, which was partly obscured by plumes of thick black smoke. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said on Twitter that “terror” was the “only aim” of the strike on Odesa.
Three people were also killed and seven wounded in shelling on the northeastern city of Kharkiv on Saturday, the region’s governor said.
For its part, the Ukrainian military claimed to have blown up a Russian forward command post in the southern region of Kherson, which is largely under Russian control.
In his overnight address, Mr. Zelensky seized on a Russian general’s statement on Friday that Moscow intended not only to dominate the east, but to roll through southern Ukraine all the way to Moldova, Ukraine’s southwest neighbor.
“This only confirms what I have said many times,” Mr. Zelensky said. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was intended only as a beginning, then they want to capture other countries.”
Military and political analysts have cast doubt on the claim by the Russian general, Rustam Minnekayev, suggesting that it might have been intended to confuse Ukraine and its supporters, and that it would be difficult for Russian forces, already engaged in heavy fighting in the east, to fight their way deeper into the south.
But the commander’s hint that Russia had far broader ambitions rattled the region, setting off alarms in Moldova, a former Soviet republic where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled a breakaway territory known as Transnistria since 1992.
Responding to General Minnekayev’s claim that Russian speakers were being oppressed in Transnistria, the Moldovan government summoned the Russian ambassador to complain that such comments were “not only unacceptable, but also unfounded” and led to “increased tension.”
Moldova is among the nations along Ukraine’s border that have accepted the more than five million refugees who have fled since the war began on Feb. 24. But even as many have raced to leave Ukraine, more than one million Ukrainians have returned to the country, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Some have risked the journey back home after Russian forces withdrew from areas around Kyiv, bringing a sense of stability to the area and allowing some business and foreign embassies to reopen there.
Poland, which has absorbed nearly three million Ukrainian refugees, more than any other country, said that nearly 24,000 crossed back into Ukraine on Saturday alone. Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker, shared a photograph on Twitter of cars that she said were lined up and waiting to cross from Poland into Ukraine for Orthodox Christian Easter, which will be celebrated on Sunday.
“Ukrainians are coming home,” she wrote. “Easter is a time to stand united and pray for Ukraine.”
Victoria Kim and Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.