KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Moscow-appointed leader of Crimea said Tuesday the region is on guard for what may be an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Sergei Aksyonov told reporters that Russian forces in Crimea had built “modern, in-depth defenses” and had “more than enough” troops and equipment to repel a possible Ukrainian assault after 13 months of war following Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“We cannot underestimate the enemy, but we can definitely say that we are ready (for an attack) and that there will be no catastrophe,” he said.
His comments came days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaffirmed Kyiv’s intention to take back the Black Sea peninsula that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Aksyonov first announced the beginning of fortification works in Crimea in November, without giving details. In February, at a security meeting chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said that the works were set to finish by April.
Satellite photos from Maxar Technologies show a complex web of trenches and other fortifications dug near Medvedivka, a small town near a crossing between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, suggesting Russian concerns about a possible Ukrainian attack there.
Military analysts expect Kyiv to take advantage of improving weather to seize the battlefield initiative with new batches of Western weapons, including scores of tanks, and fresh troops trained in the West.
Ukrainian forces could seek to break through the land corridor between Russia and Crimea, heading from Zaporizhzhia toward Melitopol and the Azov Sea. That might split the Russian forces in two.
Kyiv’s forces face a formidable challenge to dislodge Russian forces, however. Their armor likely will encounter minefields, anti-tank ditches and other obstacles, while extensive trench systems provide cover for Moscow’s troops.
The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and also recognize September’s annexation of the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians out of all occupied territories and has ruled out any talks with Moscow until it fully reclaims control of its land.
The Ukraine-held parts of the four provinces have felt the brunt of Russian bombardments in recent months, and seven civilians were wounded by Russian shelling in Donetsk and Kherson on Monday and overnight, the presidential office reported Tuesday.
Russia on Tuesday also used Su-35 aircraft to launch strikes on two towns in the Zaporizhzhia region, the head of the Ukrainian presidential office said.
Andriy Yermak said in a Telegram post that local authorities were assessing the damage in the towns of Orikhiv and Huliaipole, each of which had a pre-war population of just under 14,000.
Russian artillery also hit a church in Kherson, blowing out its windows and damaging its roof and walls, the Ukrainian regional military administration reported on Telegram. It said there had been no casualties.
___ Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report. ___ Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine