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Russia fires hypersonic missile, battle over Mariupol fought in the streets

The 24th day of war in Ukraine saw Russia tout its use of a hypersonic missile for the first time and its troops waging street battles in Mariupol, a key southern port. Ukraine said it was resisting the invasion and counterattacking.

(CN) — Fighting on Saturday raged for a 24th day in Ukraine in and around several cities and the war seemed to be taking an ominous turn with Russia's military saying it had used a hypersonic missile for the first time to destroy an underground ammunitions depot.  

Russian troops also entered the central parts of Mariupol, a key southern port city, and intense battles were taking place in city streets, hindering rescue efforts at a bombed theater where hundreds of people are feared buried under rubble.   

More than 130 people had been pulled from the theater’s basements, where they were sheltering, but it remains unclear how many are still under the rubble. Ukraine accuses a Russian warplane of bombing the building on Wednesday. Russia accuses Ukrainian troops of blowing it up.     

Fighting on Saturday continued to rage in several parts of Ukraine, including around the devastated cities of Kharkiv in the northeast, Severodonetsk in the east and Mykolaiv in the south.  

There were indications that both sides were concentrating forces on an eastern city called Izyium south of Kharkiv. The city may be critical for some 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers, among the most war-hardened, who are in danger of getting encircled by Russian forces and cut off from supplies. These troops were stationed along the frontline in Donbas where Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists have been fighting for the past eight years.        

It appeared that Russian forces were making slow advances in some areas. An amphibious assault on the historic Black Sea port city of Odessa remained a possibility too as Russian warships and submarines sat offshore. Odessa has dug in for an assault on a city that is the principal port for Ukraine’s exports, such as its vast shipments of grains. The war has prompted concerns about a global rise in food prices that could cause further unrest around the world. The war, so far, has spared much of the vast hinterland of Ukraine where much of the country’s wheat is planted.       

On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it launched a hypersonic missile on Friday that struck a large underground storage facility for missiles and ammunition in western Ukraine. This marked the first time Russia has used one of these long-range ballistic missiles — known as its “Kinzhal” bombs, the Russian word for dagger — in a war. Hypersonic missiles are so fast, five times the speed of sound, that air defense systems find them hard to track.    

Russia also said it launched sophisticated missiles at radio surveillance centers near Odessa. On Friday, it launched a missile strike that hit a barracks near Nikolaev, reportedly killing at least 50 Ukrainian soldiers. On Saturday, there were reports of Russia was using heavy duty thermobaric artillery against Ukrainian forces. These kind of bombs cause massive explosions.  

The use of more missiles and more advanced artillery signals that Russia’s strategy may be changing as its full-scale ground invasion meets with heavy losses. Russia may feel it’s time to wear Ukrainian forces down with missiles, but it’s a strategy that could see the war drag on even longer.   

Western military experts were dismissive of Russia’s chances of shifting the war to its advantage with hypersonic missiles. Increasingly, Western military analysts believe Russia’s invasion has been a fiasco and that Putin underestimated the will and ability of Ukrainians to resist.      

“It's a sign of showmanship. Even if it's used we should consider it as an isolated moment because Russia doesn't have a large number of these missiles,” Dominika Kunertova of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich told the BBC.  

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On Saturday, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said it believed Russia’s invasion has failed to achieve its goal of seizing major cities and force a change in government.   

“Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war,” the institute said in its daily assessment. “That campaign has culminated. Russian forces continue to make limited advances in some parts of the theater but are very unlikely to be able to seize their objectives in this way.” 

Faced with this failure, the think tank said Russian commanders appeared to be committing the error of nonetheless trying to carry out these goals by “continuing to feed small collections of reinforcements into an ongoing effort to keep the current campaign alive.”  

“We assess that that effort will fail,” the institute said. “The culmination of the initial Russian campaign is creating conditions of stalemate throughout most of Ukraine.”  

It said Russian forces are “digging in” and “attempting to consolidate political control over areas they currently occupy.” It said satellite images show Russian forces digging trenches and revetments around Kyiv.  

“Stalemate will likely be very violent and bloody, especially if it protracts,” the institute said. “Stalemate is not armistice or ceasefire. It is a condition in war in which each side conducts offensive operations that do not fundamentally alter the situation.”  

Such a stalemate could see a prolonged war where Russian forces continue to bomb Ukrainian cities and Ukraine counterattacks. “Ukraine’s defeat of the initial Russian campaign may therefore set conditions for a devastating protraction of the conflict and a dangerous new period testing the resolve of Ukraine and the West,” the report said. “Continued and expanded Western support to Ukraine will be vital to seeing Ukraine through that new period.”  

On the outskirts of Kyiv, fighting has been intense too with Russian troops trying to encircle the city and reinforcing their positions. A dam on the huge Dnieper River reservoir north of Kyiv has reportedly been blown up and caused flooding in some areas held by Russian troops. Water levels are rising dangerously on the Irpin River north of the capital too, bringing a new grim development for a Ukrainian nation suffering a massive humanitarian disaster.  

More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country and the United Nations says it has recorded 816 civilian deaths since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24. But the U.N. says the civilian death toll is much higher.  

On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy once again called on Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but Putin isn't showing any willingness to stop his invasion.   

“Negotiations on peace, on security for us, for Ukraine – meaningful, fair and without delay – are the only chance for Russia to reduce the damage from its own mistakes,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “It's time to meet. Time to talk. It is time to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia's losses will be so huge that several generations will not be enough to rebound.”   

Zelenskyy said Ukraine has rescued more than 180,000 people from the war zone through humanitarian corridors and provided aid. He accused Russia of blocking civilians from leaving bombarded cities.   

“This is a totally deliberate tactic. They have a clear order to do absolutely everything to make the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukrainian cities an ‘argument’ for Ukrainians to cooperate with the occupiers,” he said. “This is a war crime. They will be held accountable for this.”   

Russia, too, has accused Ukraine of blocking civilians from leaving encircled cities and using them as human shields. Russia media has shown interviews with people who have fled Mariupol accusing Ukrainian forces of not allowing them to leave the devastated city. Russia has opened its own corridors for civilians and provided people with food and other basic necessities.   

In Mariupol, Russian troops are examining males leaving the city and checking to see if they have tattoos and other marks that may reveal them as Ukrainian combatants. Many Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol are with the Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist militia incorporated into Ukraine’s national guard with a history as a neo-Nazi group.      

Both sides are suffering heavy losses and thousands of soldiers have been killed, though neither side has provided details about their losses. There are reports that wounded Russian soldiers — many with limbs blown off and even suffering from gangrene — have filled up hospitals in Belarus where doctors work around the clock.  

In Poland, meanwhile, protesters, most of them Ukrainians, stopped trucks and traffic on the Belarus-Poland border in a bid to further cut off Russia from the rest of Europe. Their action was supported by the Polish government. Russia may be avoiding sanctions by shipping freight through Belarus.   

“This is one of the main points where trucks from Europe, Russia and Belarus cross the border in order to continue trading,” Svitlana Maistruk, 33, told TRT World, a Turkish state news agency. “All this money is going to finance war in Ukraine.”  

Leaders in Warsaw called for a complete stop in trade in Russia.  

“Poland is proposing to add a trade blockade to this package of sanctions as soon as possible, both of its seaports – a ban on entering Russian-flagged ships with Russian goods – but also a ban on land trade,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. “Fully cutting off Russia's trade would further force Russia to consider whether it would be better to stop this cruel war.”   

More than 2 million Ukrainian refugees are now in Poland.   

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

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