Is Putin planning a second offensive? Europe’s biggest concern

Putin's plot to 'stall' Ukraine peace talks reveals Elisabeth Braw

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If Ukraine had complied and asked its soldiers to lay down arms by 5am Moscow time on March 21 (2am GMT), Russian generals said they would guarantee humanitarian corridors out of the city by 10am (7am GMT). In a statement on Sunday, Ukraine rejected Russian demands, refusing to relinquish the strategic port city to invading forces. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said there “can be no talk of any surrender”, with fears now settling on what Russia could do next.

Is Putin planning a second offensive?

Mariupol is a valuable target for the advancing Russian army, given its coastal position and proximity to separatists states of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The besieged city’s approximately 300,000 remaining residents are low on food, running water and medicine, with even Russian generals warning of an impending humanitarian disaster.

With the surrender deadline now having passed, fears have ignited that opposing forces may use it as an opportunity to double down on their assault.

And the first few signs of this have started, according to Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidential adviser Alexander Rodnyansky.

Speaking to Politico, Mr Rodnyansky said violence has recently “intensified” in Mariupol, adding that as attacks have become more “indiscriminate”, there is a risk Russia would launch a second offensive.

While Mariupol’s defenders have valiantly held the front lines from Putin’s soldiers, Russian raids have killed increasing numbers of civilians.

Attacks on a local maternity hospital and theatre in the last two weeks fetched the Putin administration immediate backlash, with pictures showing injured pregnant women spilling out from smouldering rubble.

At the theatre, authorities are still combing through the wreckage in search of survivors as “hundreds” are feared dead, with 130 rescued since the attack on March 16.

On Sunday, Ukrainian authorities said Russia had also targeted an art school where 400 people were sheltering.

Over the weekend, Putin’s forces revealed they had used two hypersonic missiles at strategic locations outside Mariupol, showing it is prepared to keep raising the stakes in its offensive.

Ukrainian and European officials fear the next stage could involve chemical attacks.

Russian military intelligence has publicly accused Ukrainian officials of moving chemicals through the country.

The Ministry of Defence and its allies in the US have warned the accusations may precede a “false flag” operation, such as a “faked attack, a staged ‘discovery’ of agents or munitions or fabricated evidence of alleged Ukrainian planning to use such weapons”.

While there is no evidence they will use chemical weapons yet, Russia could use such an operation to redraw conflict lines with more dangerous weapons.

And it might become an excuse for Russia to deploy “tactical” chemicals of its own.

Recent failure, said Mr Rodyansky, could lead an increasingly frustrated Russian command to use chemical weapons to take major Ukrainian cities.

He added that “as inhumane as they are”, weapons like these are “useful from a very technical, say, heartless perspective”.

Mr Rodyansky claimed that the Russian army couldn’t take these cities “without major destruction or losses to their troops”, adding the best way to eliminate this risk is with weapons designed to “kill the whole population, but leave all the infrastructure intact”.

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