Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second week on Thursday an apparent tactical failure so far, with its main assault force stalled for days on a highway north of Kyiv and other advances halted at the outskirts of cities it is bombing into wastelands.
The number of refugees who have fled Ukraine rose to more than 1 million, the United Nations said. Hundreds of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and Russia itself has been plunged into isolation never before experienced by an economy of such size.
Despite an initial battle plan that Western countries said was aimed at swiftly toppling the Kyiv government, Russia has captured only one Ukrainian city so far – the southern Dnipro River port of Kherson, which its tanks entered on Wednesday.
“The main body of the large Russian column advancing on Kyiv remains over 30 km (19 miles) from the centre of the city having been delayed by staunch Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion,” Britain’s defence ministry said in an intelligence update.
“The column has made little discernible progress in over three days. Despite heavy Russian shelling, the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol remain in Ukrainian hands.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has stayed in Kyiv, releasing regular video updates to the nation. In his latest message, he said Ukrainian lines were holding. “We have nothing to lose but our own freedom,” he said.
In Borodyanka, a small town 60 km (40 miles) northwest of Kyiv where locals had repelled a Russian assault, burnt out hulks of destroyed Russian armour were scattered on a highway, surrounded by buildings blasted into ruins. Flames from one burning apartment building lit up the pre-dawn sky. A dog barked as emergency workers walked through the rubble in the darkness.
“They started shooting from their APC towards the park in front of the post office,” a man recounted in the apartment where he was sheltering with his family, referring to a Russian armoured personnel carrier. “Then those bastards started the tank and started shooting into the supermarket which was already burned. It caught fire again.
“An old man ran outside like crazy, with big round eyes, and said ‘give me a Molotov cocktail! I just set their APC on fire!… Give me some petrol, we’ll make a Molotov cocktail and burn the tank!’.”
SECOND ROUND OF TALKS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterised the Western response to Russia’s actions as “hysteria”, which he said would pass. He said he expected a second round of peace talks with a Ukrainian delegation would take place on Thursday. A first meeting on Monday in Belarus yielded no progress.
Only Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and North Korea voted with Russia against an emergency resolution at the U.N. General Assembly condemning Moscow’s “aggression”.
In Beijing, organisers sent Russian and Belarusian athletes home from the Paralympic Games. Russia called the ban “monstrous”.
In Russia itself, where nearly all major opposition figures have been jailed or exiled in a crackdown over the past year, the authorities have banned reporting that describes the “special military operation” launched by President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24 as an “invasion” or “war”.
TASS reported on Thursday that Ekho Moskvy radio, the best-known independent broadcaster of the post-Soviet era, would be shut down. Anti-war demonstrations have been quickly squelched by police who have arrested thousands of people.
Riot police snatched peaceful protesters off the streets in St Petersburg late on Wednesday, including a 77-year-old woman filmed being muscled away by men in black helmets. Activists distributed footage of a small girl behind bars, having been arrested for holding up a sign that says “No war”.
An EU official said the bloc saw signs Russia might impose martial law: “As is the tragic loss of young lives killed in the military conflict, with Russian mothers having to learn about the loss of their sons. So it is something we’re conscious of. And it’s something we’re worried about,” the official said.
Having failed to capture major Ukrainian cities, Russia has shifted tactics, escalating its bombardment of them. Swathes of central Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million people, have been blasted into rubble.
Mariupol, the main port of eastern Ukraine, has been surrounded under heavy bombardment, with no water or power. Officials say they cannot evacuate the wounded. The city council compared the situation to the World War Two siege of Leningrad.
Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the million refugees “uprooted by this senseless war” in seven days was one of the fastest exoduses he had seen in more than 40 years of emergency work. “Hour by hour, minute by minute, more people are fleeing the terrifying reality of violence.”
Military analysts say Russia’s advance has been a tactical fiasco, with poorly maintained columns now confined to roads as spring thaw turns Ukrainian ground to mud. Each day the main attack force lies stuck on the highway north of Kyiv, its condition deteriorates, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.
“The longer Russian forces sit forward, the lower their readiness and performance will be. Everything from state of tires, to supply availability, and in the end morale,” he tweeted.
But the great fear is that, as the likelihood of rapid victory recedes, Russia will fall back on tactics it used in Syria and Chechnya, which left the large cities of Aleppo and Grozny in ruins.
Russia has already acknowledged nearly 500 of its soldiers killed. Ukraine says it has killed nearly 9,000, though this cannot be confirmed. Ukrainian authorities have offered to free Russian prisoners if their mothers come fetch them.
Kherson, a provincial capital of around 250,000 people, was the first significant urban centre to fall. Mayor Igor Kolykhayev said late on Wednesday Russian troops were in the streets and had entered the council building.
“I didn’t make any promises to them … I just asked them not to shoot people,” he said.
The International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor said an advance team had left The Hague for the Ukraine region on Thursday to start investigating possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians and says its aim is to “disarm” Ukraine and arrest leaders it falsely calls neo-Nazis.
Russia is one of the world’s largest energy producers and both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of food. Oil and commodity prices spiralled ever higher on Thursday.