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Russia poised to start battle for Kyiv, pounds Ukraine with missiles

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is set to enter a much more deadly phase as a miles-long convoy approaches Kyiv. The Kremlin told residents in the capital to abandon the city in advance of its attack.

(CN) — The war in Ukraine entered a decisive phase on Tuesday as Russia moved a miles-long convoy of tanks, armored vehicles and rocket launchers onto Kyiv and told the capital's residents to leave the city. 

In its sixth day, Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine was poised to become even more brutal over the next days as his army surrounds Ukrainian cities and fires missiles, including one that struck the television tower in Kyiv on Tuesday, temporarily knocking out TV channels in Ukraine, and another struck a government building in the main square in Kharkiv, the country's second largest city, reportedly killing at least 10 people and wounding dozens of others.  

Video showed the Kharkiv missile strike the front of the region's governmental headquarters in Freedom Square as cars drove by, causing extensive damage. The strike on the massive television tower came shortly after Russia’s Defense Ministry warned that it was preparing to strike sites used by Ukraine’s intelligence and it told Kyiv residents to leave their homes. The television tower strike killed at least five people.  

Videos and images showed firefighters and first responders carrying the dead and wounded out of the wrecked administrative building in Kharkiv. Similarly horrible images of charred bodies, wounded people, frantic first responders and dazed residents were released by Ukrainian officials after the blast on the Kyiv television tower.  

Ukrainian interior ministry officials are providing a stream of apocalyptic videos from other towns and cities where residential buildings and streets have been turned into blackened wastelands by shelling. Ukraine is accusing Russia of intentionally bombing civilians while the Kremlin accuses Ukrainian forces of placing military equipment inside residential areas.      

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke defiantly in a speech via video to the European Parliament on Tuesday and vowed to keep up the fight. The actor-turned-politician is being hailed as a hero in Western Europe and his country's plight has dramatically shifted the political discourse in the European Union, which is now confronting Russia economically and militarily and considering to fast-track Ukraine’s accession to the 27-member union. Kyiv’s push to join the EU bloc and become a NATO member are root causes of the war because Moscow sees a NATO-armed Ukraine as an existential threat.   

“There were no military facilities there to be targeted,” Zelenskyy said about the bombing of the Kharkiv state building. “The strike on Freedom Square is a crime that will not be forgotten.” 

He received a standing ovation from the European Parliament in Brussels, where the chamber’s members donned the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag and pledged their unwavering support for the besieged country.  

A burnt car is seen in front of a damaged City Hall building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Ukrainian Emergency Service via AP)

The EU is becoming a leader on confronting Russia, a step welcomed by the United States which has for years tried to get the bloc to ramp up its military spending. This conflict has put the EU on an unprecedented war footing, led by Germany after it pledged to make large increases in defense spending and lift a ban on arms shipments to Ukraine.

“This is an international act of terror from the Russia Federation,” Zelenskyy said. “We call on all countries of the world to react to this act of aggression and to announce that Russia is carrying out terrorist actions.”    

The EU is sending about $555 million worth of arms to Ukraine, it is cutting off Russian banks and companies from doing business in the West, kicking Russia and Russians out of international sporting and cultural events and opening its borders to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. On Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU will set aside a half billion euros (about $550 million) to help Ukrainian refugees.  

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The United Nations says more than 600,000 people have already left the country and that up to 4.5 million could become refugees if the fighting continues. Already, up to 2 million people had fled their homes after fighting erupted in Donbas in 2014 following the overthrow of a pro-Russian president during the so-called “Maidan Revolution,” a series of U.S.-backed protests and events that cast the country into chaos. The uprising included some extremely violent acts, including the shooting of protesters in Maidan Square in Kyiv and the burning deaths of anti-Maidan protesters in the southern city of Odessa by pro-Maidan groups.    

The International Criminal Court in the Hague opened an investigation into the conflict in Ukraine late Monday. Both sides have accused each other of war crimes with Russia pointing to alleged atrocities against ethnic Russians and the shelling of populations in the disputed territories of Donbas, the scene of an eight-year-long simmering war that helped lead Putin into his wild decision to invade Ukraine and, in his words, end the war in Donbas.  

Military analysts say the invasion is not going as well as Putin had probably expected, but still Russian forces are making steady gains. 

In the south, Russian troops were surrounding the strategic city of Mariupol and its fall would give Russia control over Ukrainian territory on the Sea of Azov and help create a land bridge between the eastern regions of Donbas and Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and it is supporting a war in Donbas where pro-Russian rebels have declared themselves independent from Ukraine. 

Although Russia so far has mostly restrained from using its air force, likely to avoid civilian casualties, military experts warn that strategy may change soon if Putin deems it time to order deadly air raids to force Kyiv to surrender. 

“The war is only in its sixth day, and despite well-publicized setbacks, the tide could still turn in Russia’s favor even if it takes a while,” wrote Colm Quinn in a briefing for Foreign Policy magazine. “The U.S. capture of Baghdad in 2003, considered one of the quickest advances in recent military history, still took three weeks – and even then the U.S. military came up against a much more demoralized force than Russia faces today.” 

Experts with the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based military think tank, said in an analysis that Ukrainian forces will be unlikely “to prevent Russian forces from enveloping or encircling Kyiv if the Russians send enough combat power to do so, but likely can make Russian efforts to gain control of the city itself extremely costly and possibly unsuccessful.” 

The institute said Ukrainian resistance “remains remarkably effective” and has exposed Russian failures. Still, Russian forces are expected to overwhelm Ukraine's defenses, it said. 

“Russian forces remain much larger and more capable than Ukraine’s conventional military,” the analysis said. 

A woman takes photos of a destroyed accommodation building near a checkpoint in Brovary, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ukraine’s government is making urgent pleas to its citizens to fight the invaders, calling on them to sabotage Russian tanks and armored vehicles, tear down road signs to disorient Russians, lay down mines, put nails in the roads to puncture tires, shoot fuel tanks and ammunition trucks and ambush convoys.  

The government has also made pleas for foreign fighters to join the war, distributed about 25,000 automatic rifles to the general population in Kyiv and released prisoners to enlist them in the fight. Young people have been shown making Molotov cocktails in squares and the interior ministry provided a video showing schoolchildren in one location making camouflage nets to hide soldiers and equipment.  

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At the same time, Ukraine’s army and militia groups are inflicting heavy casualties and losses on Russian forces, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. Videos, news reports and images support their claims, though they cannot be verified. Russia has not provided information about its losses.    

On the diplomatic and economic fronts, Russia faced even more condemnation from the West over its invasion, though it has been backed by many of the West's enemies, such as China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. 

On Tuesday, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a statement condemning the U.S.  

“The U.S. dragged Ukraine to where it is now,” he said, echoing arguments made by Moscow accusing Washington orchestrating a coup d’etat in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution. Iran’s supreme leader also called for the war in Ukraine to end.  

Russia is now heading the way of Iran, which has been languishing under a barrage of U.S. sanctions and exclusion from the Western banking system for years.  

The economic punishment of Russia continued on Tuesday in a variety of ways.  

Major Western energy companies, including BP, Shell and TotalEnergies, announced they were dropping out of oil and gas projects they were involved with in Russia and the EU said it was looking at banning more Russian banks from the dollar-based international banking transaction system, known as SWIFT. Russia’s Central Bank has already been hit and about half of Russia’s $640 billion war chest of currency reserves has been frozen.  

Also Tuesday, all 31 member countries of the International Energy Agency agreed to release 60 million barrels of oil from their strategic reserves – half of that coming from the United States – to offset rising fuel prices caused by Russia’s invasion and to preempt a potential retaliation by Russia to cut off gas exports.  

Russia plays an outsized role in global energy markets as the third-largest oil producer. Its exports of 5 million barrels of crude per day amount to about 12% of the global oil trade. Some 60% goes to Europe and another 20% to China. 

So far, U.S. and European sanctions have not barred oil or gas exports and have included exceptions for transactions to pay for oil and gas. Western leaders are reluctant to restrict Russian oil exports at a time when global energy markets are tight and high prices are fueling inflation in developed economies. 

Tuesday saw the EU shut off access to two of Russia’s state-run news outlets, the popular RT television channel and Sputnik, a news website. The move raised free speech concerns and allegations that the EU was engaged in censorship, but the EU said it had to take steps to defend against Russian disinformation and propaganda.  

Andrius Tursa, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe for Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, said in a briefing note that the Kremlin is trying to “paint Western sanctions as illegitimate ‘anti-Russian’ actions aimed at constraining the country’s development.”  

He said that if the authorities are able to channel “mounting public discontent over socio-economic conditions into greater anti-Western sentiment, the sanctions could have the opposite effect and embolden Putin.”  

Anti-war protests have broken out in numerous Russian cities and frustration may be growing, though many Russians have expressed their support for the war.  

“The spread of mass anti-war protests could be one of the few factors influencing Putin’s actions towards Ukraine,” Tursa said.    

Tursa said the sanctions could cause turmoil in Putin’s inner circle if the country’s business and political elite begin to see removing him from office as the only way for the severe sanctions to be lifted.  

“The realization among the elites that severe restrictions would be kept in place as long as Putin remains in power could make them view him as a liability,” Tursa said. “This could cause cracks within Putin’s regime and potentially even threaten his presidency in the longer term.” 

He said various government officials have “showed signs of reluctance to comply with certain orders” from Putin but that “there have been no high-profile defections to date.” 

So far, Russia hasn’t taken many steps to retaliate against the West. Putin raised the nuclear threat level and closed off air space to Western airplanes in a tit-for-tat move after Russian airplanes were barred from flying into the EU and the United Kingdom. 

There’s a possibility Russia could break off diplomatic relations with Western countries and hit back with cyberattacks. 

Tursa said it is less likely that Russia will cut off gas and oil exports because it desperately needs foreign currency earnings.  

But he pointed out that Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and the head of Putin’s ruling United Russia party, “floated the possibility of nationalizing the assets ‘of people registered in unfriendly jurisdictions.’”  

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

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