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Kyiv prepares for Russian onslaught, suffers more shelling

The Ukrainian capital is girding itself for an all-out attack as Russian troops and weaponry get closer and more missiles drop on the city.

(CN) — Russian shelling of Kyiv got more intense on Tuesday, killing five civilians with strikes on residential buildings and a metro station, and a new curfew was imposed on a city preparing for a Russian offensive against the capital where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is urging his compatriots to keep up the fight.   

Kyiv, a city of 3 million people, has been digging in for a full-scale assault ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on Feb. 24 and sent convoys of troops and weaponry onto the capital and fired missiles at it. But so far, Russia has not launched an all-out attack on the city.    

“The spirit right now, everyone is angry,” Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion and mayor of Kyiv, said about the will of Ukrainians in the city to fight.    

He spoke to journalists as he stood outside a residential block that had been hit in the early morning hours.    

“I talked to the people, they don't want to leave,” he said, calling on those able to take up arms to stand up to the Russian invasion and for the West to join Ukraine in its fight for freedom and independence against Russian authoritarianism. “Unity around Ukraine is very important. We are fighting right now for our values, our principles.”   

Ukraine is pleading for the United States and its NATO allies to enter the war against Russia by enforcing a so-called no-fly zone, which would in effect mean shooting down Russian warplanes and bombs. So far, despite growing pressure, U.S. President Joe Biden has refused such a step, saying it could lead to World War III. But Ukrainian officials – and many in the West – say Russia’s attack has already started such a catastrophic war.    

Less than half of Kyiv's population is still inside the city and many of those still there are hunkering down in bomb shelters, underground subway stations and other shelters. The city says it has stockpiled enough food for two weeks.    

Its streets are blocked with anti-tank barricades, squadrons are holed up waiting for Russian soldiers and machine guns, anti-tank rocket launchers, hand grenades, Molotov cocktails and many other weapons have been stockpiled.    

“We are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our lives with the missiles, air bombs, artillery, tanks and mortars and everything else Russian troops are using to destroy us,” Zelenskyy said on his Telegram feed on Tuesday.    

The 44-year-old Jewish actor-turned-politician, who came into office in 2019 with huge support after he vowed to combat corruption and bring to a peaceful end a long-running war over pro-Russian separatist claims in eastern Ukraine, has become Ukraine’s beloved wartime leader and his daily exhortations from his Kyiv bunker have helped bolster Ukrainian morale and given the country hope it can repel the far-superior military might of Russia.     

With each attack, Zelenskyy asserted, “Russia is destroying itself because every shot at Ukraine, every blow at Ukraine, is a step towards Russia's self-destruction.”    

In this image from video posted on Facebook early Tuesday, March 15, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Russian forces have not been able to encircle the capital and have been largely stalled outside it for more than two weeks. Military experts believe the advance on Kyiv was hindered by logistics and supply problems, Ukrainian ambushes and defenses and possibly because Russia's military leadership has wanted to avoid bloody street fighting.   

In recent days, though, Russian forces have advanced closer to the city and in doing so also caused extensive damage and death in towns, villages and cities en route to Kyiv. Witnesses have told reporters of Russian troops executing Ukrainian army volunteers, shooting randomly into houses, looting homes and other acts of violence. Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, areas in northern and western outskirts of Kyiv, are being described as a nightmare where civilians are being shot and harassed as they try to flee burning, blackened and devastated suburbs.  

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The chaotic and dangerous situation outside Kyiv has led to the deaths of journalists too. On Sunday, an American filmmaker, Brent Renaud, was killed when a car he was in was allegedly fired upon by Russian soldiers. On Tuesday, a war cameraman working for Fox News, Pierre Zakrzewski, was killed along with a Ukrainian consultant working for Fox, Oleksandra Kuvshynova. Fox News correspondent Benjamin Hall was wounded in the attack too, the news channel reported.   

On Tuesday, ceasefire talks resumed and there were signs of limited progress, but it appears much more fighting will take place before either side declares a ceasefire.  

In what was seen a potentially significant concession, Zelenskyy on Tuesday said Ukraine must acknowledge that it will never become part of the NATO alliance.  

“It is clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO; we understand this,” Zelenskyy said in remarks to a newly formed military initiative led by the United Kingdom, the Joint Expeditionary Force.    

“For years we heard about the apparently open door, but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged,” he said, as reported by the Guardian newspaper.  

But not too much can be read into his statement. He has suggested in recent days that Ukraine could become a neutral state but he also has long advocated for Ukraine’s admission to the military alliance to deter Russian aggression and called for immediate NATO membership. Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO – including by adding the aspiration into its constitution – was deeply upsetting to Russia with Putin warning that seeing NATO in Ukraine was a “red line” because it would put Russia’s security at risk. His invasion is seen as part of the Kremlin’s strategy to stop NATO expansion.   

High-level diplomacy, though, may be picking back up. Next week, Biden is scheduled to arrive in Europe for talks with European allies and Russia has talked about its willingness to reopen dialogue.   

For now, though, tensions between the West and Russia continue to deteriorate. On Tuesday, Russia slapped sanctions on Biden, Pentagon officials and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The EU deepened its sanctions too against Russia and it was kicked out of the Council of Europe, an intra-governmental body that oversees the European Court of Human Rights. A new wall is descending between the West and Russia and relations are nearly frozen as Russian sports teams, businesses, cultural figures and citizens find themselves barred from the European Union and the much of the West.  

In Russia, there are signs of anger in some quarters, especially among the country’s middle classes, against Putin and his inner circle for turning their country into an international pariah, or a “terrorist state,” in the words of many Western politicians and commentators.  

On Monday, Marina Ovsyannikova, a Russian journalist at Channel 1, Russia’s main state television station, made international headlines when she disrupted a live news broadcast by holding up a sign behind the presenter that read: “No war, stop the war, don't believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.” 

She was fined 30,000 rubles (about $290) on Tuesday for her protest, but she is facing up to eight years in prison under a draconian new law targeting anti-war protesters. Thousands of demonstrators have been arrested in Russia, which has made it a crime to describe the invasion in Ukraine as a war. News reports in Russia must call it instead a “special military operation.”  

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In a video message, Ovsyannikova urged Russians to rise up. “Don't be afraid of anything. They can't imprison us all,” she said, as reported by the BBC. 

French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to offer her protection, either at the embassy or through asylum. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called what she did an act of “hooliganism.” 

So far, the anti-war protests in Russia have been fairly limited and polls show there is support for the invasion.  

On the battlefield in Ukraine, Ukrainian forces have withstood the Russian assault with bravery and are proving to be a much more formidable army than many in the West and apparently those in the Kremlin had expected.   

Women walk next to debris of damaged shops after bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Putin's invasion is now being described by many Western experts as a military fiasco that is exposing the Russian army as much weaker than many had expected.    

“At the outbreak of the war, Russia not only overestimated its own military strength but it also miscalculated the willingness of the Ukrainian people to fight for their country,” wrote Kelly A. Grieco, a security expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, in a piece for Responsible Statecraft. “The Kremlin expected its military to steamroll the Ukrainian forces, but it has learned through fighting that the Russian military has a wide range of weaknesses and the Ukrainians have both the ability and will to protract the war.”    

Still, it remains much too early to make sweeping assessments and, for as much horror as Russia has so far inflicted on Ukraine, military experts point out that Russia's invasion has seen its army use relative restraint, likely in the hope that Ukrainians, especially ethnic Russians in the country, would back the invasion. With the war going badly, Putin and his top commanders may seek to wreak even more havoc to achieve their goals. Tuesday saw further bloody shelling, including bombing of a town called Polohy that killed at least 20 civilians and 12 soldiers, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency.    

More than 3 million people, nearly all women and children, have fled Ukraine since the invasion started. Under martial law, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are now allowed to leave the country and are under general mobilization orders to fight. The United Nations estimates that more than 500 civilians have been killed so far. Ukraine says 97 children have been killed. Troop losses on both sides are heavy, certainly in the hundreds if not thousands, but accurate numbers remain elusive.    

Tuesday saw the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic make their way to Kyiv on a train in a bid to show solidarity with the besieged city and send a warning signal to Putin against attacking Ukraine's historic capital. These Eastern European countries have been on the forefront demanding NATO do more to protect Ukraine. As former Soviet satellite states, these Eastern European countries often express deep fears about Russia seeking to re-exert itself in their countries.     

Fighting continued to rage in other parts of Ukraine with reports that Russian troops had entered the city center of the besieged port of Mariupol, which has been the scene of terrible suffering for more than two weeks. Thousands of civilians were reportedly allowed to leave the bombarded city by private cars on Tuesday.   

Russian sources reported that by Tuesday evening the Ukrainian defense of Mariupol had been shattered. These reports were not independently confirmed and Ukraine’s military late Tuesday said the fighting over the city continued.   

If Russian reports are true, though, success in Mariupol would become a big boost in Russia’s efforts to take control of Ukrainian territories along the Black Sea and establish a land bridge between Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, and eastern Ukrainian regions where it has been backing pro-Russian separatists.    

Russian troops are fighting their way toward the Black Sea port of Odessa, a crucial port city for Ukraine and a historic city of deep meaning for Russians and Ukrainians. On Tuesday evening, Ukrinform reported that Russian warships had launched attacks on parts of Odessa.      

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.  

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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