A Russian border region reels from sustained Ukrainian artillery and drone strikes

Firefighters tackle a blaze at the site of a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Firefighters tackle a blaze at the site of a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

A Russian border region being pounded by Ukrainian shelling and drones is expanding its closure of schools and colleges amid a major evacuation plan, authorities announced Wednesday, as Kyiv’s forces extend their campaign of long-range strikes that aim to put the Kremlin under pressure.

Ukraine lacks ammunition supplies along the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line because of a shortfall in promised Western supplies, which is one of the main factors forcing its army to take a more defensive stance. But at the same time, it’s attacking oil facilities deep inside Russia and seeking to unnerve Russia’s border regions.

Some Belgorod schools near the border will close early before school holidays, regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov announced, after Ukraine shelling continued to cause deaths and injuries among the local population.

Schools in and around the city of Belgorod will close Wednesday through Friday, he said. Also, universities and colleges will switch to remote learning, and clubs and cultural, sports and other educational institutions will stay closed.

The measures were announced a day after the governor unveiled plans to evacuate about 9,000 children from the region and several days after a rubber-stamp presidential election in Russia in which President Vladimir Putin extended his rule in a landslide.

Despite the attacks, the official voting turnout in the Belgorod region was 87%, and Putin officially captured 90.66% of the vote, which has been described as a sham by Ukraine and its Western allies.

Ukraine’s attacks on Russian soil have embarrassed the Kremlin. A Dec. 30 artillery strike on the center of Belgorod city killed 21 people, including three children, local officials said.

Putin vowed Wednesday to provide support for Belgorod civilians who have lost their homes and businesses.

“There is a lot to do and we will do everything which depends on us,” he said at a televised meeting at the Kremlin. “Of course, the primary task is to ensure safety. There are different ways to do this. They are not easy, but we will do it.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that it intercepted 13 Ukrainian rockets over the Belgorod region around midmorning Wednesday. Gladkov, the governor, said that three people were killed and two others were wounded, including a 17-year-old girl, in “massive shelling” of Belgorod city, the regional capital. He said that 16 people have been killed over the past week alone.

In another possible sign of Kyiv’s strategy, Ukrainian drones targeted the city of Engels, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of the border with Ukraine in the Saratov region. An air base for strategic bombers is near the city.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that it took down four drones over the Saratov region.

Long-range strikes on Russia are “a cost-effective way to create challenges for the Russian state,” said Michael Kofman, a military expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Without more Western help, however, “Russian advantages will mount,” Kofman wrote on X, formerly Twitter, late Tuesday. “The risk of a Russian breakthrough (on the front line) in the second half of the year rises dramatically” unless support arrives, he said.

The European Union is moving ahead with a plan to use the profits generated from billions of euros of Russian assets frozen in Europe to help provide weapons and other funds for Ukraine. EU leaders are expected to endorse the plan at a summit in Brussels starting Thursday.

But the United States is Ukraine’s crucial military supplier, and U.S. Congress remains stalled over funding to send additional weapons to the front.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan visited the Ukrainian capital Wednesday for meetings with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his officials. Speaking at a briefing after the talks in Kyiv, he voiced confidence that the Congress will deliver the aid and acknowledged that the process had “taken too long.”

“We will get a strong bipartisan vote in Congress,” Sullivan said. “We will get that money to you as we should, so I don’t think we need to speak about Plan B today.”

Sullivan added that “there is wide understanding in the United States that Ukraine matters, that the security and future of Ukraine matters to the security and future of United States of America.”

The U.S. has repeatedly pledged to stand by Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” but Washington’s failure to do so leaves Ukraine at the mercy of Russia’s much bigger and better provisioned army, analysts say.

Meanwhile, the Czech government has pressed ahead with a plan to source from around the world large amounts of artillery shells, which Ukraine desperately needs. Officials say they have confirmed purchases for 300,000 shells and promises for another 200,000.

The Czech government’s national security adviser, Tomas Pojar, said that Ukraine should get the first of those shells in June at the latest.

In other developments, four people were killed and five others were wounded in a Russian attack on Kharkiv city in northeastern Ukraine, according to Mayor Ihor Terekhov. Rescuers were searching for people under the rubble amid a huge blaze.

Also, a 74-year-old school worker in northeastern Ukraine’s Sumy region was killed in a Russian airstrike on Tuesday, the Prosecutor General’s Office said. Russian troops destroyed a school and house in a border village.

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