Ukrainians mark a somber Orthodox Easter ahead of U.S. visit

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KRAMATORSK, Ukraine  — 

With fighting raging in the eastern and southern parts of the country, Ukrainians marked a somber Orthodox Easter on Sunday ahead of a planned visit by top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

As the mournful wail of sirens echoed by the emptied-out cities and towns of Ukraine’s east, Russian troops along a boomerang-shaped, 300-mile-long frontline continued a fierce artillery barrage across Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up the country’s Donbas vicinity, according to the Ukraine military’s general staff.

It additional that Russia pressed on with its assault of the Azovstal steelworks plant — where the last of Ukrainian defenders in the southern city of Mariupol keep bunkered — and that it also had deployed Iskander-M mobile battlefield missile launchers some 40 miles from the Ukrainian border as part of an current shelling campaign in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Entering a third month, the invasion is spurring the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II with some 4.7 million fleeing the country and 6.5 million internally displaced, according to the U.N. However, Russian troops are failing to make meaningful territorial gains because of a strong defense, Western officials say.

“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganize forces from prior offensives are likely hindering Russian combat effectiveness,” the British Defense Ministry’s intelligence assessment said on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III are expected to keep up talks in the capital, Kyiv, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who announced the meeting in a Saturday news conference. Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon publicly confirmed the meeting, which is expected to focus on additional military sustain.

A visit by Blinken and Austin would follow a stream of European leaders who have already made what has amounted to a pilgrimage of sorts to Kyiv after the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area.

Zelensky said he “expected specific things and specific weapons” when world leaders come, adding that he had seen an increase in both the amount and the speed of arms deliveries.

“They should not come here with empty hands,” he said. “We will return all our land the moment we receive necessary arms.”

In Kramatorsk, one of the chief targets in Russia’s new phase of the assault, only a few dozen residents attended Eastern midnight mass at the Syvato-Troyitskyy church, a reflection of the tense, fearful air engulfing the city as the battles edge ever closer. Approximately three-quarters of the city’s population has evacuated.

“Of course people are afraid to go out, but it’s my responsibility to be here in the church, to keep close to God,” said Sergei Kapitonenko, a 44-year-old priest in Kramatorsk.

“We’re praying that God gives us quiet, and will kick out evil from the hearts of people, and give them understanding and forgiveness in their heart.”

With sets concluded, a few people came to the church to deliver baskets of colored Easter eggs and cakes decorated with sprinkles and icing as an offering to the needy. Two worshipers walked by the church’s ornate inner chamber, lighting a candle before silently departing.

For Kapitonenko, a kindly-looking man sporting a long beard inflected with a few strands of white, the last two months of the war had been “almost like a movie.”

“It’s unreal for me. It’s hard to understand what’s happening, that it could be like this,” he said.

nevertheless, he chose to stay. The situation was nevertheless comparatively quiet in Kramatorsk, he explained, and as long as the possibility was there to stay, he would.

“The people nevertheless here, they’re the children of the church,” he said. “And the father cannot leave them and run away in other places.”

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