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Ukrainian officials urge residents in the east to evacuate ahead of expected Russian attacks

Officials in Ukraine say Russia is preparing to launch a new offensive in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and are imploring residents to leave while they still can.

"Later, people will come under fire," Deputy Prime Minster Iryna Vereshchuk said Wednesday. "And we won't be able to do anything to help them."

A U.S. defense official told reporters on Wednesday that Russia has finished its withdrawal of troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, sending them back to Russia and Belarus to reorganize and stock up on supplies. It's believed they will then move to eastern Ukraine and launch a major offensive. Those forces were battered over the last several weeks, a second defense official told The Associated Press, and it could take as long as a month for them to prepare for the next stage of the invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also warned on Wednesday that Russian forces are gearing up for battle in eastern Ukraine. In the Donbas region, separatists have formed the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic and Donetsk People's Republic, which Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized ahead of the invasion. It's expected that Putin's aim is to gain control of these breakaway states and the rest of the Donbas.

That won't be easy, Zelensky said. "We will fight and we will not retreat," he declared. "We will seek all possible options to defend ourselves until Russia begins to seriously seek peace. This is our land. This is our future. And we won't give them up."