Moscow Accused Of 'Scorched-Earth Tactics' As It Steps Up Assaults In Eastern Ukraine

Moscow has intensified its offensive in the eastern Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military said on May 23, with Severodonetsk under "round-the-clock" indiscriminate bombardment as Russian troops attempt to encircle the city, while U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Russia wants to "eliminate" Ukraine's national identity.

The heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken a severe toll on Russia's military, British intelligence has said, estimating that during the first three months of its war in Ukraine, Moscow has suffered a number of deaths similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union during its nine-year war in Afghanistan.

Biden, who was speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on May 23 during his Asia tour, said Russian President Vladimir Putin can't occupy Ukraine, but he can "try to destroy its identity." Biden warned that Putin will have to "pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine."

Russian forces tried to storm Severodonetsk but were unsuccessful and retreated, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said.

In total, Ukrainian defenders have repelled 11 enemy attacks in the last 24 hours as Russian troops repeatedly tried to break through, stepping up their use of aircraft to destroy infrastructure, Ukraine's General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said early on May 23.

Regional Governor Serhiy Hayday said Russian forces attempting to encircle Severodonetsk were "using scorched-earth tactics, deliberately destroying" the city.

Hayday said Russia was concentrating forces brought from a vast area -- those withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, others that had been involved in Mariupol's siege, Moscow-backed separatist militias, and even troops freshly mobilized from Siberia -- and concentrating their attacks on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

At least seven civilians were killed and eight wounded on May 22 across the Donetsk region, according to the Ukrainian Army's Facebook page.

Russian shelling and missile strikes also kept pounding Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the north, as well as Mykolayiv and Zaporizhzhya in the south, Ukrainian officials said.

The British military, in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 23, said that Russia's high casualty rate "continues to rise in the Donbas offensive" as a result of converging factors such as poor low-level tactics, insufficient air cover, poor flexibility, "and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeat mistakes."

The bulletin cautioned that a continuously rising death toll could spark public discontent back home, where Russians in the past proved sensitive to losses suffered during wars of choice.

Ukrainian officials have said little since the start of the war about the extent of their armed force’s casualties, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a news conference on May 22 that 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east.

Russia's war in Ukraine has also pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world above 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.

"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," said the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

In Ukraine, 8 million people are internally displaced, while another 6 million have left the country, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.

In delivering a keynote address on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy on May 23 told the gathering of some of the world's most influential business leaders that "preemptive, not reactive measures" need to be imposed to prevent similar invasions to Russia's unprovoked actions against Ukraine.

"The sanctions must be maximum. That is what they should be so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to launch a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly understand what consequences they will face right away as a response to their actions," Zelenskiy said.

In Kyiv, a court sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Shishimarin has admitted to killing a 62-year-old civilian in the early stages of the invasion, but told the court he was pressured into an act for which he was "truly sorry."

Meanwhile, Ukraine's armed forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.

"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance. Additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.

"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.

Officials from Belarus did not immediately comment.

Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.

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