ODESSA, UKRAINE (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Russian forces on Wednesday (March 2) seized the first major Ukrainian city in their onslaught, the strategic port of Kherson, as they stepped up bombardment of civilian targets across the country, put other cities under siege and pushed to encircle and cut off the capital, Kyiv.
Russian troops and tanks rolled into Kherson, on the Dnieper River near the Black Sea, after days of intense fighting that left as many as 300 Ukrainian civilians and fighters dead, said the mayor and another senior Ukrainian government official who confirmed that it had fallen. “There is no Ukrainian army here,” the mayor, Mr Igor Kolykhaev, said in an interview.
“We are a people who broke the enemy’s plans in a week,” Mr Zelensky said in a video address. “These plans had taken years to write – they are mean, with hatred for our country, for our people.”
The incursion in Kherson has yet to overthrow the government in Kyiv but thousands are reported to have died or been injured and more than 870,000 have fled Ukraine.
Other Russian columns besieged Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and the port city of Mariupol. And most ominously, a huge convoy of military vehicles stood north of Kyiv in apparent preparation for a major offensive.
The battle for control of Kherson, a shipbuilding centre of around 250,000 people, left bodies strewn about the city streets, blackouts, limited water and little food, Mr Kolykhaev said. Utility workers have tried to fix damaged pipes and downed lines, he said, but have come under fire from snipers.
He said a group of about 10 armed Russian officers, including the commander of forces attacking the city, had entered the city hall and informed him that they planned to set up a military administration.
Video and photographs verified by The New York Times appeared to show Russian troops having seized a government administrative building in Kherson, and at least three armoured vehicles lined up in front of the building with their guns facing outward. Two people confronted the vehicles while holding Ukrainian flags.
Mr Kolykhayev said late on Wednesday that Russian troops were in the streets. He called on civilians to walk through the streets only in daylight and in ones and twos.
“There were armed visitors in the city executive committee today,” he said in a statement. “I didn’t make any promises to them... I just asked them not to shoot people.”
The Russian invasion at first drew global attention to attacks on the two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north, but it appeared to be making more progress in the south.
Capturing Kherson could clear the way for Russian forces to push westward towards Odessa – a much bigger prize – as they try to seize Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast, cutting it off from world shipping.
Russian troops have gained ground near Mariupol while naval forces gathered offshore, raising fears of an amphibious assault on a city where local officials said there was no power or heat.
Mariupol lies on the Sea of Azov, a body bordered on three sides by Russia, which controls access to it. The port is part of a vital stretch of terrain Russia is apparently trying to capture, to link Russia-backed separatist enclaves in the southeast with Crimea, the southern peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. That could trap the Ukrainian troops arrayed against the breakaway region in a pincer, caught between Russian forces to the east and west.
A day after President Joe Biden vowed in a defiant State of the Union address that the war would “leave Russia weaker and the world stronger” and that President Vladimir Putin of Russia “has no idea what’s coming”, the West further tightened the retaliatory economic squeeze that has the Russian economy reeling. US and European sanctions have hit the Russian government, its ally Belarus, Russian businesses and powerful individuals and their assets abroad.
Meanwhile, the city of Konotop, in northeastern Ukraine, was the scene of a tense confrontation between residents and Russian troops, whom the mayor said had threatened to destroy the city if it did not surrender.
Footage verified by The New York Times showed several Russian soldiers walking through an angry crowd accompanied by the city’s mayor, Mr Artem Semenikhin, near Konotop’s City Council building. One of the soldiers held a grenade in each hand above his head as he walked. The footage appeared to have first surfaced online on Wednesday, but it was unclear when the events actually look place.
“Shame,” several people shouted at the soldiers. “Don’t walk around showing your grenade off,” said one person, using a profanity. The Russian soldiers eventually drove away.
Another video showed Mr Semenikhin standing on a concrete planter outside the City Council building and addressing the crowd. He said the Russian soldiers had told him they would “raze the city to the ground with their artillery” if the residents did not surrender. He then asked the crowd whether they wanted to surrender or fight. The response was overwhelmingly in favour of fighting.
“I am too,” Mr Semenikhin said. “But the decision has to be unanimous because their artillery is already trained on us.”
Russian artillery and rocket fire have cut off essentials like electricity, medicine, water and heat to many Ukrainian communities and turned a growing number of offices, homes, businesses and vehicles to crumpled, burning hulks. Around the country, people are sheltering in basements and tunnels as explosions shake the ground above them. In Kyiv alone, some 15,000 people are sleeping in the subways.
“These aren’t military targets,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday. “They are places where civilians work and families live.”Ukraine is mounting stiffer resistance than either its allies or Russia had expected, a week into a war that has already left thousands of casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. And the US and its allies, their stance against Moscow hardening with each passing day, are funneling an array of weapons into Ukraine, in addition to punishing Russia economically.
“We’ve hardly slept for seven nights,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said early Wednesday in a video message. But, he added: “Today you, Ukrainians, are a symbol of invincibility.”
His government said on Wednesday that Russian attacks had killed more than 2,000 civilians and an unknown number of Ukrainian troops.
Russia said 498 of its troops had died, the largest military toll it has acknowledged since the 1999-2000 war in Chechnya, and it has said that Ukrainian losses were much higher.
Western officials said that, in fact, Russia’s military was suffering hundreds of wounded or killed each day. But all such figures are unverifiable estimates.
Ukrainian civilians in several cities have built barriers they hope will stop or slow Russian columns, while videos and still images have shown others standing in front of armoured vehicles or scolding Russian soldiers.
Russian forces have so far refrained from pushing into the hearts of most cities – which would risk brutal street fighting that could partly negate their technological advantages – instead massing on the outskirts and shelling from a distance.
Videos verified by The New York Times show blasted, burning apartment buildings in Borodyanka, northwest of Kyiv. Explosions struck two large buildings in Kharkiv on Wednesday, setting ablaze one that housed Kharkiv National University, a day after a strike on a government building in the city. The mayor of Mariupol said 120 civilians there had been hospitalised with war wounds.
A Pentagon official said that Russian forces were suffering logistical problems, and warned that they were likely to become less precise in targeting their missile and artillery attacks as the fighting continues. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.
The US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Wednesday that Russia had used thermobaric weapons – also known as vacuum bombs or fuel-air explosives – that can create enormous blasts and indiscriminate destruction.
“Many of the bodies have been blown apart,” the mayor said. “If we can make a photograph it makes sense to try to identify them, but if not we put them into bags and bury them that way.”
The EU for the first time will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons for Ukraine, rather than just leaving that to individual member nations as it has until now, said Dr Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. A French official said the bloc would establish a hub in Poland for handling aid and weapons shipments.
Ukraine appealed to the United Nations and the Red Cross to establish a humanitarian corridor to ferry medical and other supplies into cities and civilians out, but said Russian forces had rebuffed the idea.
In an emergency meeting on the crisis, the UN General Assembly voted 141-5 in favour of a resolution condemning Russia’s actions, with only Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea opposed. Thirty-five countries abstained, including China, India, Pakistan and Iran. Almost half of those abstaining were in Africa, where Russia has cultivated some strong relationships, and where the sparse supply of Covid-19 vaccines has fuelled existing tensions with the US and Europe.
Meanwhile, Mr Blinken has announced “sweeping sanctions on Russia’s defence sector”, including the weapons manufacturers that make “the very systems now being used to assault Ukraine’s people”.
The US and its allies have cut off Russian access to much banking and international commerce, blocked imports and exports, and frozen Russian assets held abroad. Mr Biden also said Russian airlines would be banished from US airspace. The EU and the US both announced a fresh round of sanctions on Wednesday against Belarus, which Russia has used as a base for its drive on Kyiv.
Mr Putin on Wednesday banned anyone in Russia from taking more than US$10,000 (S$13,561) in foreign currency out of the country. He had built up an enormous reserve of foreign cash to weather such a crisis, but US officials say the sanctions are blocking access to much of it.
After Russian stocks plummeted following the first rounds of sanctions, the government shut down the Moscow Stock Exchange on Monday, and it remained closed Tuesday and Wednesday. The rouble’s value has tumbled to record lows, despite efforts by Russia’s central bank to prop it up, and interest rates have more than doubled.
In Russian cities, thousands of people have been arrested for protesting the war, and imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for more people to take to the streets to oppose a conflict “unleashed by our obviously insane czar".