'It Is Hell There': Zelenskiy Says Russian Bombardments Have Completely Destroyed Donbas Region

By RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Russian forces have "completely destroyed" Ukraine's Donbas region as they have intensified their offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking in a video address late on May 19, Zelenskiy also accused Russian forces of attempting to kill as many Ukrainians as possible and repeated his accusation that Russia is committing genocide.

"It is hell there -- and that is not an exaggeration," he said, adding that 12 people were killed in the "brutal and absolutely senseless bombardment" of Severodonetsk on May 19.

There are "constant strikes on the Odesa region, on the cities of central Ukraine. The Donbas is completely destroyed," he said.

Zelenskiy also said he spoke on May 19 with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about a range of issues, including financial aid to assist the shattered Ukrainian economy, agricultural exports, and "the evacuation of our heroes from Azovstal."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said earlier it had begun registering hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who left the Azovstal plant in Mariupol as prisoners of war (POWs).

"Over the last 2 days, we’ve registered hundreds of prisoners of war leaving the Azovstal plant in Mariupol. Registering POWs is an essential part of our work. It's critical to ensure they're accounted for & treated humanely and with dignity," the ICRC said on Twitter on May 19.

The ICRC said in a statement that the registration process, which is ongoing, involves documenting personal details such as name, date of birth, and closest relatives.

This "allows the ICRC to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families," the statement said.

It added that under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC is allowed to interview prisoners of war "without witnesses" and that visits with them should not be "unduly restricted."

The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 19 that the number of prisoners that had “surrendered" since May 16 was 1,730. All of them, including 80 who were injured, were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

It is not clear how many more soldiers remain holed up in the sprawling industrial compound, but the city of Mariupol is now under Russian control.

The Ukrainian military announced earlier this week that the men had been ordered to stand down to save their lives after weeks spent in the steelworks’ underground complex.

Kyiv has expressed hope that the fighters will be exchanged for Russian prisoners but pro-Russian authorities in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region suggested some of them could be put on trial.

The UN’s humanitarian chief on May 19 urged Russia and Ukraine to build on the cooperation that was necessary to end the siege and enable the evacuation. Martin Griffiths said operations to initially evacuate civilians and later fighters points the way back toward broader peace negotiations.

"Those operations could not have happened had it not been for cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Ukraine authorities," he told reporters in Geneva. The cooperation “suggests there is something to build on."

Griffiths called for the resumption of the stalled talks hosted by Turkey, which invited negotiators from Kyiv and Moscow to meet for two rounds of talks in March.

On the battlefield, Serhiy Hayday, the governor of the Luhansk region, said the Russian military began shelling Severodonetsk, where he said 12 people were killed and more than 40 injured, with heavy weapons early on May 19.

Information on casualties was incomplete because it is impossible to access the area under fire. Hayday’s report could not be independently verified.

Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the main operations department of the Ukrainian military, told a briefing that a group of Russian troops was trying to conduct offensive operations along the entire line of contact in Donetsk and there were active hostilities in the areas of Severodonetsk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiiv, and Kurakhiv.

Gromov also reported that Ukrainian forces have liberated 23 settlements in the Kharkiv region since May 5.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said earlier that Russian forces had launched counterattacks around Kharkiv in an attempt to regain lost ground after being pushed back to the border.

In the area of the Velyka Komyshuvakha settlement, Russian forces suffered significant losses and were forced to withdraw to previously occupied positions, Ukraine's General Staff said on May 19.

The governor of the Russian region of Kursk said on May 19 that one person was killed and several wounded after what he said was a Ukrainian attack on a village near the border.

The British Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 19 that Lieutenant General Sergei Kisel, who commanded the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, has been suspended for his failure to capture Kharkiv.

The British intelligence report said that Kisel was just one of the senior Russian officers who have been fired in recent weeks for their poor performance during the early stages of the invasion of Ukraine.

Among other Russian commanders who have likely been dismissed is Vice Admiral Igor Osipov, who commanded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, following the sinking of the cruiser Moskva in April, British intelligence reported.

Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, likely remains in his post, the bulletin said, adding that it was unclear whether he retains President Vladimir Putin's confidence.

A culture of cover-ups and scapegoating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system, the British bulletin said, concluding that this could place further strain on Russia's centralized model of command and control and make it more difficult for Moscow to regain the initiative in the conflict.

Meanwhile, an unnamed NATO military official with knowledge of the intelligence told CNN that the momentum in the conflict had shifted significantly in favor of Ukraine, although the alliance doesn't expect significant gains for either side in the coming weeks.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of Finland and Sweden on May 19 and welcomed their NATO membership bids.

Biden expressed strong support for the applications of Sweden and Finland, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, and TASS