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Russia makes limited gains in its brutal invasion of Ukraine

After 19 days of bloody fighting, Russia's invading forces in Ukraine are meeting tough resistance from Ukrainian forces and are making only limited gains despite possessing superior military might.

(CN) — Nineteen days after ordering an invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces continued to appear bogged down in fierce fighting with Ukrainian troops on Monday.   

Ceasefire talks also resumed on Monday with the two sides talking via video, but there were no breakthroughs. Negotiations though were set to continue.    

Ukraine's leadership is pleading for the West's help to defeat Putin, but so far the United States and its NATO allies remain unwilling to send in troops and airplanes in the defense of Ukraine, but they are supplying Ukraine with weapons.    

“To those abroad scared of being ‘dragged into WWIII’. Ukraine fights back successfully. We need you to help us fight,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, on Twitter. “Provide us with all necessary weapons. Apply more sanctions on Russia and isolate it fully. Help Ukraine force Putin into failure and you will avert a larger war.”  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will make similar pleas when he is scheduled to make a speech to Congress on Wednesday via video.     

On Sunday, Russia struck a NATO military training center in Yavoriv, a western Ukraine town about 15 miles from the Polish border where foreign volunteers are being prepared to fight. The strike, reportedly carried out by warplanes, killed at least 35 people and wounded 134 others, Ukraine said. About 1,000 foreign volunteers, including Americans, Brits and Danes, were at the center, according to a report from BuzzFeed. The Independent reported that three former British special forces troops were among those killed.   

The strike on the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security was yet another signal from the Kremlin that it considers the flow of weapons and volunteer fighters from the West “legitimate” targets. The U.S. and its allies are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in military support to Ukraine, but getting those supplies into Ukraine is tricky and must be done with stealth.     

In another sign that Russia is moving westward in its attacks, a television tower near Rivne was struck on Monday, killing at least nine people and wounding nine others, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency. Rivne is in northwestern Ukraine about 107 miles from Lviv, a western city near the Polish border where the U.S. evacuated its embassy staff ahead of the invasion. Air raid sirens are being heard much more frequently in Lviv.    

The risk of the war spilling over into NATO territories is growing. Last Thursday, a Soviet-era drone carrying explosives, apparently belonging to Ukraine’s military, somehow ended up in Croatia and exploded in Zagreb, without causing any injuries. On Monday, Romania reported that another drone, possibly operated by Russia, was found in a field. Croatia and Romania are part of NATO. 

The southern port city of Mariupol is the scene of horrific fighting, shelling and a growing humanitarian disaster. Ukraine said more than 2,500 people have been killed in the city over the past two weeks under Russian siege. A pregnant woman inside a Mariupol maternity hospital Russia struck last week died on Monday along with her unborn child, prompting a new wave of international outrage at Putin's brutal invasion.    

There were reports that hundreds of civilians were evacuated from Mariupol on Monday, but hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped inside a city without adequate electricity, water, food, medical supplies and other basic necessities.    

Mariupol is being held by hardcore Ukrainian forces affiliated with the Azov Battalion and there are reports of intense street fighting. Mariupol is seen as crucial in Russia's plans to develop a land bridge between Crimea, a peninsula it annexed in 2014, and the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbas. It appears Russia hopes to seize Ukraine's Black Sea territories and cut Ukraine off from international maritime trade.  

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People walk past a crater from an explosion on Mira Avenue (Avenue of Peace) in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In areas occupied by Russian troops, in particular the southern city of Kherson, there are reports of large protests against the invaders with people shouting “fascists” at Russian tanks and troops.   

Also, two Ukrainian mayors have reportedly been abducted by Russian agents and there are reports of Russian troops using brutal force in towns and villages they are seizing. The Guardian newspaper cited witnesses who said Russian troops executed men in a village outside Kyiv who had served as Ukrainian volunteers and randomly shot at houses.    

On Sunday, an American filmmaker and journalist, Brent Renaud, was killed by Russian troops outside Kyiv when he tried to get close to the frontline.     

Liudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament commissioner for human rights, accused Russian “occupiers” of “terrorizing the local population,” as reported by Ukrinform.    

She alleged Russian troops in Enerhodar, a town in southern Ukraine, beat and torture “people right on the streets, abduct passers-by, take away cars.” In villages outside Kyiv, she accused Russian troops of looting houses and taking food away from residents.   

Ukrinform reported that Oleh Nikolaiev, a priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was taken from his home by Russian troops who have taken the Black Sea town of Berdiansk near Mariupol.   

Russia’s military is resorting to ever more devastating tactics to break down Ukraine’s will to fight and more photos and videos are emerging showing massive devastation in Ukrainian cities and towns, such as in Kharkiv and Volnovakha, where large areas have been turned into rubble.    

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the fighting has been very intense and numerous residential buildings, schools and administrative buildings have been destroyed.   

Ukrainian forces and agents too have been accused of causing extensive damage as they retreat and fight Russian troops. Ukrainian agents also have been accused of killing alleged pro-Russia traitors and spies, including a mayor and even a member of its ceasefire negotiating delegation who was accused of acting as traitor.    

There were reports in Russian media on Monday that Ukraine launched a missile against Donetsk, a Russian-held city in eastern Ukraine, that was shot down. Tass, the Russian news agency, reported that 20 civilians were killed by falling fragments. Ukraine denied it launched the attack and said it was a Russian missile that rained down on Donetsk.   

As horrible as the devastation has been, military experts say Russia has so far refrained from the kind of annihilation it used in its wars in Chechnya and Syria and that it could turn to even more aerial bombing and artillery shelling because the war isn’t going as well as it had hoped.    

So far, according to military experts, Russia’s air force has largely stayed on the sidelines, perhaps because Ukraine has proven to have an effective air defense system but also maybe because the Kremlin doesn’t want to increase the level of carnage for fear of turning Ukrainians even more against Russia.    

Firefighters extinguish an apartment building after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Monday, March 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)

In justifying his invasion, Putin claimed that Ukrainians and Russians need to be united as one people and in the opening stages of the war he apparently believed Ukrainian troops might lay down their arms and that Russian troops would be welcomed as liberators.    

But Western military and Russia experts speculate that Putin grossly underestimated Ukraine’s willingness to fight and, because he allegedly lives inside a Kremlin bubble with only a handful of confidants, was provided poor intelligence about how an invasion might unfold.  

Since the outbreak of war, Ukraine has shown video of captured Russian soldiers who say they were not told they were going to invade Ukraine and that they believed they had been sent to perform military drills. On Monday, Ukraine put five Russian soldiers on display at a purported news conference where they said they were conscripts who didn’t want to fight Ukrainians. The veracity of such reports is hard to assess and Ukraine is potentially violating the Geneva Convention because it forbids putting prisoners of war on display like that. Amnesty International reprimanded Ukraine for such news conferences last week.   

Besides possessing ultra-nationalistic and anti-democratic dreams of reconstituting the Russian empire and reestablishing Russia as a great nation, Putin was led into the invasion to prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO member and a model of liberal democracy threatening his regime, Western experts say.    

Russia has now become the West’s No. 1 enemy and it is being clobbered by an unprecedented barrage of sanctions. The hope is that the economic, cultural and technological blockade will compel Russians to rise up and get rid of Putin.      

Despite all the setbacks in the invasion, the Kremlin insisted Monday that its campaign in Ukraine was going according to plan.

“Russia has a sufficient potential for conducting the special military operation in Ukraine. The operation is proceeding in accordance with the original plan and will be completed on time and in full,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.  

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

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