Russia widens attacks on Ukrainian cities

The Russian military struck Ukrainian cities far from the main battle lines Friday, pressing its strategy of bombing Ukraine into submission as the country plunged deeper into misery and privation more than two weeks into the war.

>>Michael Levenson, Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquharThe New York Times
Published : 12 March 2022, 06:39 AM
Updated : 12 March 2022, 06:39 AM

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has demonstrated in past conflicts in Syria and Chechnya a willingness not only to bomb heavily populated areas indiscriminately but also to use civilian casualties as leverage against his enemies.

On Friday, evidence mounted that the Russian military was doing exactly that in Ukraine. A shoe factory, a psychiatric hospital and an apartment building were among the latest civilian targets hit by Russian forces, Ukrainian officials said.

Apart from the brutality of such an approach, analysts said it may reflect the mounting challenges that Russia faces, as Putin’s goal of a swift, decisive victory has been slowed by logistical problems and resistance by the smaller but highly motivated Ukrainian military.

Citing Russia’s second war with Chechnya and its assault on the capital, Grozny, beginning in 1999, military experts raised doubts that Russia could prevail in Ukraine relying solely on a strategy of pulverising cities and pummeling civilians.

“Grozny was the elusive target,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They were able to carpet-bomb Grozny and destroy the city, but the insurgency continued.” It ended 10 bloody years later.

Moving to exact a heavier economic toll in response to the assault, President Joe Biden on Friday said the United States would join the European Union and other allies in stripping Russia of permanent normal trade relations and would take steps to bar it from borrowing money from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

“Putin must pay the price,” Biden said, calling him an “aggressor.”

Biden said he also planned to ban certain imports from Russia, including seafood, vodka and nonindustrial diamonds, as well as American exports of luxury items such as high-end watches and luxury vehicles.

At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russia accused the United States of funding and supervising biological weapons programs in Ukraine and of plotting to use migratory birds, bats and insects to spread disease.

The claim was supported by China, Russia’s close ally, which called for a UN investigation. But the United States, Ukraine and other Western countries roundly rejected the accusation and said Russia was fabricating the claims to legitimise its invasion.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States had proudly and openly supported public health labs in Ukraine, which research diseases such as COVID-19. “It has absolutely nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with biological weapons,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

After underestimating Ukrainian resistance and overestimating the Russian military’s ability to conduct a complex invasion by air, land and sea, Putin was ramping up what that Russian army does best: shelling and missile strikes, according to a senior Pentagon official and other US officials.

Near the eastern town of Izyum, Ukrainian officials reported a strike on a psychiatric hospital, where 30 workers and 300 patients were in a bomb shelter. That came two days after an attack on a children’s hospital and maternity ward in the besieged port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said.

After several quiet days in the southern port of Mykolaiv, Russian forces hit a cafe, a home and the parking lot of a large shopping centre, the regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said.

Russian forces also struck Lutsk, in northwest Ukraine; Ivano-Frankivsk, in the southwest; and Dnipro, in central Ukraine, where missiles landed near a kindergarten, an apartment building and a two-story shoe factory, which broke out in flames, according to the Ukrainian military.

Across Ukraine, at least 564 civilians have been killed and 982 have been injured by Russian forces that have used heavy artillery, rockets and widely banned cluster munitions in populated areas, the United Nations said.

“Schools, hospitals and kindergartens have been hit, with hugely devastating consequences,” Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, said in Geneva.

Russian forces have attacked at least 26 hospitals and health care facilities, the United Nations said. Those strikes have killed 12 people, including two health care workers, and injured 34, eight of them medical workers, Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, told reporters by video link from Lviv in western Ukraine.

The mayor of Melitopol, a small southeastern city that was one of the first to fall to the Russians, was kidnapped by Russian forces on Friday, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called it “a sign of the weakness of the invaders.”

The war has left hundreds of thousands of civilians in dire conditions in besieged cities as food runs low, clean water supplies dry up and access to medical care becomes scarce. More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country in the fastest-growing exodus of European refugees since World War II, according to the United Nations.

The situation is particularly catastrophic in Mariupol, where on Friday Pyotr Andryuschenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said it was impossible to tally bodies in the streets because the bombing had not let up.

“Since 6 a.m., there has been no break: shelling, bombardment, shelling, bombardment,” he said. “The last relatively safe places in the city are being shelled, and they are shooting at residential areas.”

He added: “Humanity has not yet invented a word for what Russia is doing to us.”

Beyond Ukraine, the war reverberated in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as officials said the talks had been paused because of Russian demands that sanctions imposed on it because of the invasion exclude its dealings with Iran.

European officials expressed concern that the pause might be the death knell for efforts to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the deal, which limits Iran’s nuclear program while lifting economic sanctions on Tehran imposed by the United States.

A deal would bring Iranian oil back on the world market at a time when Western countries are trying to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas. Those hopes have now been cast into limbo.

Russian authorities, toughening their crackdown on dissent, began the process of banning Instagram, one of the last Western social networks operating in the country. They also opened a criminal case against Meta, parent company of Instagram and Facebook, asking a court to declare it an “extremist organisation.”

While Russia was attacking a wide circle of cities Friday, Russian and Ukrainian forces were girding for what is shaping up to be a climactic battle in Kyiv, which a Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, on Friday called a “city under siege.”

That could be a long, drawn-out fight with thousands of casualties on both sides, as well as among the roughly 1.5 million citizens remaining in the city. One Russian column approaching from the northwest was about 9 miles from the city centre, a senior Pentagon official said, while another column pushing in from the northeast was about 12 to 18 miles away.

A senior US official said it could take up to two weeks for Russian forces to encircle Kyiv and then at least another month to seize it, in all likelihood through a combination of relentless bombardment and what could be weeks or months of door-to-door street fighting.

And there are important differences between what took place a generation ago in Chechnya, with a population of about 2 million, and Ukraine, with about 44 million. The assault on Grozny took place before the social media era, and in a distant, former Soviet republic that fewer Russians thought of as part of Russia, rather than a nation portrayed in Russian state media as an inseparable part of Russia.

“It runs so much against the Russian narrative that the Ukrainians are our brothers and Ukraine is part of our history,” said Michael Reynolds, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

Or, as Stronski said: “Kyiv is the historic birthplace of both Ukraine and Russia. It is dicier to carpet bomb a place like Kyiv or Kharkiv than it was Grozny.”

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