Russian forces said they had captured a Ukrainian port on Wednesday as Russian and Ukrainian troops battled for another urban centre and President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow wanted to “erase” his country.
As the conflict intensified further on the seventh day of the invasion, the Russian army said it had taken control of the Black Sea port of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
Russian paratroopers also landed in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, triggering clashes in the streets, Ukrainian forces said.
After Washington branded Russian President Vladimir Putin a “dictator”, Ukraine’s leader said a strike on Tuesday on a television mast in the capital Kyiv demonstrated Russia’s threat to Ukrainian identity.
Five people were killed in the attack on the tower at Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre in which over 33,000 people were killed — most of them Jews.
“They know nothing about our capital. About our history. But they have an order to erase our history. Erase our country. Erase us all,” Zelensky said in a video.
The 44-year-old, who is himself Jewish, urged Jewish people around the world to speak up.
“I am now addressing all the Jews of the world. Don’t you see what is happening? That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world not remain silent right now,” he said.
“Nazism is born in silence. So shout about killings of civilians. Shout about the murders of Ukrainians.”
Ukraine says more than 350 civilians, including 14 children, have been killed in the conflict and the International Criminal Court has opened a war crimes investigation against Russia.
In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden warned the sanctions campaign to cripple Russia’s economy would escalate and its oligarchs were being targeted.
Biden hailed the resolve of the Western alliance and voiced solidarity with Ukraine as lawmakers in the US Congress gave a standing ovation to the Ukrainian people.
“A Russian dictator, invading a foreign country, has costs around the world,” Biden told lawmakers, promising “robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at Russia’s economy.”
Fight for Kharkiv
Russian troops rolled into Ukraine last week to achieve Putin’s mission of overthrowing Zelensky’s pro-Western government, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing across Ukraine’s borders.
Russian forces have carried out a massive bombing campaign and encircled urban centres, but Ukrainian troops fought off the advance on major cities.
On Wednesday, however, Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces were in “full control” of Kherson, a city with a population of 290,000 people.
Konashenkov said in televised remarks that public services and transport were operating as usual.
“The city is not experiencing shortages of food and essential goods,” he said.
He said talks were under way between the Russian army and local authorities on maintaining order, protecting the population and keeping public services functioning.
Kherson’s mayor Igor Kolykhaiev said in a post on Facebook: “We are still Ukraine. Still firm.”
Apparently contradicting the Russian army’s claims, he said he needed to find a way to “collect the (bodies of the) dead” and “restore electricity, gas, water and heating where they are damaged.”
Ukraine’s army said Russian paratroopers had also landed in Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine near the Russian border with a population of 1.4 million.
“There is an ongoing fight between the invaders and the Ukrainians,” the army said in a statement on messaging app Telegram.
AFP in Kharkiv saw rocket damage on security, police and university buildings.
Ukrainian forces said Russian strikes hit a residential block and a government building in the city on Tuesday killing 18 people, drawing comparisons to the massacres of civilians in Sarajevo in the 1990s and condemnation for what Zelensky called a “war crime”.
‘Putin was wrong’
Western countries have imposed crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy and there have been international bans and boycotts against Russia in everything from finance to tech, from sports to the arts.
The EU and NATO members have also sent arms and ammunition to Ukraine, although they have made clear that they will not send troops and the EU has dampened Zelensky’s hopes of membership of the bloc.
In his speech in Washington on Tuesday, Biden announced new measures against Russia and its wealthy elite with a new task force to go after the “crimes” of Russian oligarchs.
“And tonight I am announcing that we will join our allies in closing off American airspace to all Russian flights — further isolating Russia and adding an additional squeeze on their economy.”
The US leader said Putin’s aggression was “premeditated and totally unprovoked” — but hailed the resolve of the Western alliance in responding with brutal sanctions.
‘Russia will be a pariah’
In response to the invasion, Western companies have also withdrawn from projects in Russia, deepening the economic toll on Moscow that saw the ruble collapse this week.
Apple, ExxonMobil and Boeing announced Tuesday in rapid succession steps to withdraw or freeze business in Russia.
The moves followed earlier announcements by Disney, Ford and Mastercard among others.
“Going forward, Russia will be a pariah, and it’s hard to see how they can restore anything resembling normal interactions in the international system,” said Sarah Kreps, professor at Cornell University.
The invasion has sent global markets into a spiral, with crude surging past $110 a barrel Wednesday and equities sinking.
Initial talks between Russia and Ukraine on Monday failed to yield any breakthrough.
Since then, Russian forces have pounded Ukraine.
Strikes were reported in Konstantinovka in eastern Ukraine, Bordodyanka near Kyiv and Zhytomyr in central Ukraine.
In an important strategic victory, Russian troops attacking from the Crimean peninsula said they had linked up along the Azov Sea coast with pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The separatists said the city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea was encircled.
Ukraine says almost 6,000 Russian troops had been killed. Moscow has not revealed any casualties.
As fears grew of an all-out assault on Kyiv, residents spent another night crammed into makeshift bomb shelters.
Teacher Irina Butyak, 38, sought safety in the basement of her apartment block sheltering with some 20 people.
“We have train tickets for western Ukraine for tomorrow,” she told AFP as air raid sirens blared directly overhead.
“I don’t think we will make the train.”
Vladimir Putin came a step closer on Thursday to war crime charges amid fears that cities in Ukraine faced being besieged and carpetbombed as Russian forces pursue a “slow annihilation” of opposition forces.
As horrifying new reports poured in from cities around Ukraine, the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor told how he had ordered a team of investigators to fly immediately to the region.
ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan said he was “jump starting” an inquiry into war crimes as Russian troops were increasingly adopting tactics used in Chechnya and Syria, which saw parts of cities reduced to rubble by indiscriminate bombardments, after failing to seize control of the country in a planned lightning advance.
On a visit to Tallinn in Estonia, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s generals, who themselves could face war crime charges, had deployed thermobaric weapon systems in Ukraine which can vaporise human bodies.
He added: “How far (Putin) will go, what weapons he will authorise to achieve his ultimate aim, is unknown but we’ve seen the use of massive amounts of artillery. We’ve seen the deployment of thermobaric artillery weapon systems and we worry how broad those could go.”
Russia’s strategy in the war is shifting toward a “slow annihilation” of Ukraine’s military, US officials believe, which could see a siege of the capital Kyiv and other major cities.
Asked if the Government was concerned about Russia’s reported policy of cutting off cities and towns in Ukraine in a bid to starve out residents, Britain’s security minister Damian Hinds told Sky News: “I’m not going to second guess what Vladimir Putin might be thinking, what might be in his head, but we do know that this is a ruthless, ruthless force.” As the invasion entered its second week:
Four loud explosions were heard overnight in Kyiv from where tens of thousands of women and children have fled amid fears that Russian forces could encircle it to try to force Ukrainian troops to surrender by inflicting a horrendous siege on the city’s residents.
British defence chiefs said the bulk of a 40-mile Russian military column heading for Kyiv had made “little discernible progress” over the past three days and remained more than 19 miles from the city centre. The column has been delayed by Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdowns and congestion, the ministry said in its daily intelligence briefing.
Russian shelling and attacks on civilian populations killed 34 in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region in the past 24 hours, the emergency services said.
Hundreds of people were feared to have been killed in the southern port city of Mariupol, with the governor saying it was now without electricity or water supplies. “We are being destroyed,” said a city council spokesman.
More and more residential areas were being hit in what appeared to be indiscriminate bombing and missile attacks, with buildings, including in the city of Irpin, in the Kyiv region, being destroyed.
Russian forces entered the southern city of Kherson, according to its mayor Igor Kolykhaiev, who told residents to obey a Russian curfew and pleaded with soldiers not to shoot people.
Amphibious landing ships were seen forming up off the west coast of Crimea as US officials warned of a major assault on the city of Odessa.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Ukrainians to keep up the resistance. “We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” he said. “They will have no peace here.” He urged Russian soldiers to “go home”, warning: “Ukraine doesn’t want to be covered in bodies of soldiers.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said 227 civilians had been killed and another 525 injured in its latest count of the toll in Ukraine, explaining that the figures were a vast undercount as it was only confirmed casualties. Ukrainian officials have suggested the true fatality figure was already more than 2,000.
The Kremlin has admitted that 498 Russian soldiers had died and 1,600 had been injured, however, British defence chiefs believe the casualty figure is most likely significantly higher. Ukrainian authorities claim about 9,000 Russia troops have died, although, this number may well be exaggerated.
A million refugees are already believed to have fled Ukraine.
Dozens of anti-war demonstrators were arrested in St Petersburg last night after jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny called on Russians to protest against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Former British ambassador to Moscow Sir Roderic Lyne said mobile phones were Putin’s “biggest weakness” because Russians would be able to find out the truth about the war despite a media clampdown.
The London Stock Exchange said today it had suspended with immediate effect the trading of global depository receipts (GDRs) of several Russia-based companies including Rosneft, Sberbank, Gazprom, En+ and Lukoil.
The West is aware of Russia’s security concerns and will have to address them at some point, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state television. He said Moscow saw Western sanctions as a “tax on independence”.
Evidence of war crimes in Ukraine
Evidence gathered in Ukraine points towards war crimes being committed and the blame lies with Vladimir Putin, a British defence minister has said, echoing Joe Biden who called the Russian leader “a war criminal”.
Asked if the Russian president was indeed a war criminal, the defence minister, James Heappey, told Sky News: “I’ve not pulled my punches when I’ve been on your show. I think the evidence that is being gathered points very much towards war crimes being committed and the culpability for war crimes sits absolutely with the leader of the Russian government, the man who decided to do all this in the first place.
“It’s not just Putin who ends up being responsible for war crimes as and when the evidence is gathered and people are held to account. Every single person in the military chain of command can not just hide behind the line of “they’re only following orders”, they too are involved in the prosecution of war crimes in Ukraine. This is a stain on the Russian nation.”
Biden told reporters on Wednesday Putin was “a war criminal” over his country’s invasion of Ukraine, triggering outrage in Moscow, and has since followed up the comments by branding the Russian president a “murderous dictator”.
The remarks came in a week when the Russians bombed a theatre in the battered port city of Mariupol that was sheltering hundreds of civilians.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said in its latest update on Ukraine that Russian forces “have made minimal progress this week”.
“Ukrainian forces around Kyiv and Mykolaiv continue to frustrate Russian attempts to encircle the cities. The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol remain encircled and subject to heavy Russian shelling.
“The UN now states that the number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine has already surpassed 3.2 million. This number will continue to rise as a result of ongoing Russian aggression.”
Heappey was asked about reports that a foreign agent had been able to call the secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, on a Microsoft Teams video call.
Wallace is said to have become suspicious about the caller’s intentions and terminated the conversation after 10 minutes.
He ordered an investigation into the security breach but there are serious questions about Whitehall security after the home secretary, Priti Patel, said she was similarly targeted last week.
Heappey told Sky News: “The SoS has asked some pretty tough questions of the department as to how that was able to happen and he acknowledges it shouldn’t have done.
“Ben is a guy who understands threat very well; he spent a long time as our nation’s security minister before he was promoted to secretary of state. He was acutely aware he was on Microsoft Teams call and therefore he would not ever disclose any sensitive details on a platform that could be very easily intercepted and listened in to.
“The call therefore was pretty bland and when the caller started to ask more pointed questions about our intentions militarily in the region, Ben knew full well that that’s not the sort of question that anyone would normally ask on Teams, so he became pretty suspicious and terminated the call.”