Russia reportedly losing its grip on Kherson, as advance to Kyiv again branded stalled

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — About 300 people were killed in last week’s Russian airstrike on a theater in Mariupol that served as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said Friday in what would make it the deadliest attack ever. known from the war against civilians to this day.

Meanwhile, in what could signal a significant tightening of Moscow’s military objectives, the United States said Russian forces appeared to have halted, at least for now, their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, kyiv, and focused more on the fight for control of the Donbass region in the southeast of the country – a change the Kremlin seemed to confirm.

Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, said the main objective of the first stage of the operation – to reduce Ukraine’s combat capability – had “generally been achieved”, allowing Russian forces to concentrate on “the main objective, the liberation of Donbass”. ”

The apparent shift in Moscow’s stated war aims – after weeks in which Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign country and appeared determined to capture many of its cities and overthrow its government – ​​could point to a possible exit strategy for Russia, which has faced fiercer resistance and heavier losses than expected.

The British Ministry of Defense says Ukrainian forces have counterattacked and were able to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometers, or 22 miles, east of kyiv, while the Kremlin rejects intelligence US military indicating that Kherson is again contested.

In fact, the Russians no longer fully control Kherson, the first major city to fall to Moscow forces, a senior US defense official has said. The official said the southern city was contested by the Ukrainians in heavy fighting. The Kremlin has denied losing full control.

Donbas is the largely Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 and where many residents have expressed support for Moscow.

In Mariupol, the bloodshed in theater has fueled allegations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or through indiscriminate shooting.

For days the government of the beleaguered and crumbling port city was unable to count the casualties of the March 16 bombing of the Mariupol Grand Drama Theater, where hundreds were believed to have taken shelter, the word “CHILDREN” printed in Russian in large white letters on the ground outside to ward off an air attack.

In announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel on Friday, the city government cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses got to the figure or whether rescuers had finished digging out the ruins.

US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Friday that the theater bombing was an “absolute shock, especially since it was so clearly a civilian target.” He said it showed “a shameless disregard for the lives of innocent people”.

The scale of the devastation in Mariupol, where bodies were left unburied amid bomb craters and hollowed-out buildings, made information difficult to come by.

US government accuses Russian forces in Ukraine of committing war crimes; Russian shelling destroyed between 80% and 90% of Mariupol, according to local officials; Biden arrives in Brussels to meet with alliance leaders. Photo: Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

But shortly after the attack, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner said more than 1,300 people had taken refuge in the theatre, many of them because their homes had been destroyed. The building had a bomb shelter in the basement and some survivors emerged from the rubble after the attack.

“This is a barbaric war, and according to international conventions, deliberate attacks against civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Geoana, NATO’s deputy secretary general.

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He said Putin’s efforts to smash Ukraine’s will to resist are having the opposite effect: “What he gets in response is an even more determined Ukrainian military and an ever more united West in support. Ukraine”.

As the Russians continue to shell the capital from the air, they appear to have “hunkered down defensively” outside kyiv and focus more on Donbass, the senior US defense official said, speaking under on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment. .

“They show no signs of wanting to move into Kyiv from the ground,” the official said.

The official also said that the United States had seen indications that Russia was beginning to call on Russian soldiers in Georgia for deployment in Ukraine.

The British Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian forces counterattacked and were able to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometers, or 22 miles, east of kyiv as Russian troops retreat to their overextended supply lines. In the south, logistical problems and Ukrainian resistance are slowing the Russians as they seek to head west toward the port of Odessa, the ministry said.

The Russian military said 1,351 of its soldiers died in Ukraine and 3,825 were injured, although it was not immediately clear whether this included pro-Moscow separatist forces fighting in the east or others not part of the Department of Defense, such as the National Guard. . Earlier this week, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops had been killed in four weeks of fighting.

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor suggested in a Friday interview with MSNBC that 16,000 was a reasonable current estimate of the Russian military death toll.

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Moscow bristles at the tightening of sanctions around the Russian economy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Western pressure amounted to “all-out war”.

“And the goals are not hidden,” he said. “They are publicly declared – to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy and Russia as a whole.”

For civilians, the misery is deepening in Ukrainian cities, which look more and more like the ruins that Russian forces left during their campaigns in Syria and Chechnya.

In the village of Yasnohorodka, about 50 kilometers west of kyiv, Russian troops who were there earlier in the week appeared to have been pushed back as part of a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.

The village church tower was damaged by an explosion and the houses at the main crossroads are in ruins. Loud explosions and bursts of gunfire could be heard.

“You can see for yourself what happened here. People have been killed here. Our soldiers were killed here. There was fighting,” said Yasnohorodka resident Valeriy Puzakov.
Tens of thousands of people left Mariupol last week, most of them traveling by private car through dozens of Russian checkpoints.

“Unfortunately, nothing is left of Mariupol,” said Evgeniy Sokyrko, who was among those waiting for an evacuation train in Zaporizhzhia, the nearest urban center to Mariupol and a bus station for refugees. “Last week there were explosions like I’ve never heard before.”

Oksana Abramova, 42, said she suffered for those left behind in the city, who were cut off from communication with the bombardment of cellphone, radio and TV towers and cannot afford to s ‘escape.

“I think all the time about how they are, where they are. Are they still hiding, are they alive? Or maybe they’re not there anymore,” she said.

In kyiv, the ashes of the dead are piling up at the capital’s main crematorium because so many loved ones have left, leaving urns unclaimed. And the northern city of Chernihiv is practically isolated.

Chernihiv lost its main road bridge over the Desna River to a Russian airstrike this week. Follow-up shelling then damaged a pedestrian bridge, trapping remaining residents inside the town without power, water and heat, authorities said. It is believed that more than half of Chernihiv’s 285,000 pre-war inhabitants fled.

In other developments:

• The United States and the European Union announced a decision to further tighten Russia economically: a partnership to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and dry up the billions of dollars the Kremlin makes from the sale fuel.

• Russia said it would offer safe passage from Friday to 67 ships from 15 foreign countries that are stuck in Ukrainian ports due to the danger of shelling and mines.

• The International Atomic Energy Agency says it has been informed by Ukrainian authorities that Russian bombing is preventing workers from entering and leaving the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which requires constant monitoring of its spent fuel.

• The Russian military claimed to have destroyed a huge Ukrainian fuel base used to supply defenses in the kyiv region, with ships firing a salvo of cruise missiles, according to the Interfax news agency. Videos on social media showed a huge ball of fire near the capital.

For the vulnerable – the elderly, children and others unable to join the millions heading west – food shortages are mounting in a country once known as the breadbasket of the world.

In relentlessly bombarded Kharkiv, hundreds of panicked people took refuge in the subway and in a hospital emergency room filled with wounded soldiers and civilians.

Most of the elderly women lined up stoically to collect food and other urgent supplies this week as explosions sounded in the distance. Shaking in anticipation, a young girl watched as a volunteer’s knife cut through a giant slice of cheese, carving out thick slices, one for each hungry person.

Hanna Spitsyna was responsible for distributing the delivery of food aid from the Ukrainian Red Cross. Those waiting each received a piece of cheese, placed in plastic bags that people in line held open.

“Among those who stayed, there are people who can walk on their own, but many who cannot walk, elderly people,” Hanna said. “All these people need diapers, swaddling blankets and food.”

MarketWatch contributed.

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