Russian victory in Ukraine is a “realistic possibility”, Boris Johnson said on Friday, as Vladimir Putin steps up his onslaught on eastern Ukraine.
Speaking in New Delhi, on the second day of his two day visit to India, the Prime Minister said he agreed with an assessment from Western security officials that the Kremlin’s renewed focus on the Donbas could allow the Russian president to claim victory.
“Yes, I mean, look, I think the sad thing is that that is a realistic possibility,” he said.
“Putin has a huge army. He has a very difficult political position because he’s made a catastrophic blunder. The only option he now has really is to continue to try to use his appalling grinding approach led by by artillery, trying to grind the Ukrainians down.
“He’s very close to securing a land bridge in Mariupol. The situation is I’m afraid, unpredictable at this stage, but we’ve just got to be realistic about it.
“But we’ve also seen his incredible heroism of the Ukrainians and their willingness to fight. And I tell you something, I think no matter what military superiority Vladimir Putin may be able to bring to bear in the next few months. And I agree it could be it could be a long period, he will not be able to conquer the spirit of the Ukrainian people. That is just an observable fact.”
Mr Johnson’s remarks came a few hours after Joe Biden warned President Putin that the West’s unity on Ukraine will not crack and Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky said any gains made by Russia’s forces would be “temporary”.
The show of defiance from the US and Ukrainian leaders came a day after Mr Putin claimed victory in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol — despite troops at the Azovstal steelworks fighting on — and amid claims Russian forces had captured 42 villages in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
But announcing a further $1.3 billion (£1 billion) in military aid and financial support for Ukraine, Mr Biden said: “Putin is banking on us losing interest… [that] Western unity will crack…and once again we’re going to prove him wrong.”
On Friday a senior Russian general said Russia plans to seize the whole of southern and eastern Ukraine.
Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, was quoted by Russian state news agencies as saying Moscow aimed to seize the entire eastern Donbas region, link up with the Crimea peninsula, and capture Ukraine’s entire south as far as a breakaway, Russian-occupied region of Moldova.
That would mean pushing hundreds of miles beyond current lines, past the major Ukrainian cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa.
Ukraine said his comments contradict Russia’s previous assertions that it has no territorial ambitions.
In an overnight video address to the nation, Mr Zelensky said: “The occupiers continue to do everything to have a reason to talk about at least some victories…None of these steps will help Russia in the war against our state. They can only delay the inevitable: the time when the invaders will have to leave our territory. In particular Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia despite everything the occupiers say.”
In other developments on day 58 of the conflict in Ukraine:
⬤ New satellite images released appeared to show mass graves near Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of burying up to 9,000 Ukrainian civilians to conceal the slaughter taking place in the ruined port city.
⬤ UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is is due to meet with Putin for talks on Tuesday April 26 for talks, it was announced.
⬤ A senior member of the Azov Battalion which has been leading a heroic rearguard action at the city’s Azovstal steelworks insisted: “I always say that as long as we are here, Mariupol remains under control of Ukraine.” Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, one of the estimated 3,000 military personnel and civilians holed up in the plant’s labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels, told the BBC: “All the buildings in the territory of Azovstal are practically destroyed… We have wounded and dead inside the bunkers. Some civilians remain trapped under the collapsed buildings.”
⬤ UK defence chiefs reported that “heavy shelling and fighting continues in the eastern Donbas as Russia seeks to advance further towards settlements including Krasnyy Lyman, Buhayikva, Barvinkove, Lyman and Popasna as part of their plans for the region”. Russia’s defence ministry said it had hit 58 military targets in Ukraine overnight.
⬤ Ukraine said it will not attempt to establish any humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians today as the situation on the roads is too dangerous, Deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said: “To all those waiting to be evacuated: be patient, please hold on!”
Claiming victory in the battle for Mariupol on Thursday, Mr Putin called off plans to storm the Azovstal plant, ordering his troops to blockade the facility instead. Mr Biden described the victory claims as “questionable.”
In its daily assessment of the war released early on Friday morning, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said a “full ground assault by Russia on the plant would likely incur significant Russian casualties, further decreasing their overall combat effectiveness”.
Russian forces have destroyed much of Mariupol. The city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said today that 100,000 people remained trapped in the city and needed a “full evacuation”.
But the emergence of new pictures of mass graves from satellite image provider Maxar Technologies will spark fresh fears of war crimes by the Kremlin’s forces.
Maxar said the photos revealed more than 200 mass graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians have been burying Mariupol residents killed in the fighting.
The graves could hold as many as 9,000 dead, Mariupol city council said. There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin.
When mass graves and hundreds of dead civilians were discovered in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv three weeks ago, Russian officials denied that their soldiers killed any civilians there and accused Ukraine of staging the atrocities.