Ukraine war: Undisguised terror as Russian strike hits second-largest city Kharkiv

Russian forces stepped up their attacks on populated urban areas Tuesday, bombarding the central square in Ukraine’s second-largest city and Kyiv’s main TV tower.

A Russian military strike on Kharkiv, which badly damaged its symbolic Soviet-era regional administration building, was a warning of what might become of other cities if Russia’s invasion isn’t countered in time.

Closed-circuit television footage showed a fireball engulfing the street in front of the building, with a few cars rolling out of the billowing smoke. An emergency official said the bodies of at least six people had been pulled from the ruins, and at least 20 other people were wounded.

“You cannot watch this without crying,” a witness said in a video of the aftermath, verified by the Associated Press.

Russian forces fired at the Kyiv TV tower and Ukraine’s main Holocaust memorial, among other civilian sites targeted Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said.

After the strike on the TV tower, an emergency official said, the bodies of at least six people had been pulled from the ruins, and at least 20 other people were wounded.

Ukraine’s president accused Moscow of a blatant campaign of terror and vowed: “Nobody will forgive. Nobody will forget.”

The TV tower is a couple of miles from central Kyiv and a short walk from numerous apartment buildings. Officials said a TV control room and a power substation were hit, and Ukrainian TV channels stopped broadcasting.

At the same time, a 64km convoy of hundreds of Russian tanks and other vehicles advanced on Kyiv in what the West feared was a bid by Russian President Vladimir Putin to topple Ukraine’s government and install a Kremlin-friendly regime.

And Russian forces pressed their attack on other towns and cities across the country, including at or near the strategic ports of Odesa and Mariupol in the south.

Meanwhile, Russian nuclear submarines sailed off for drills in the Barents Sea and mobile missile launchers roamed snow forests in Siberia after President Vladimir Putin ordered his nation’s nuclear forces put on high alert over tensions with the West over the invasion of Ukraine.

Day six of the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II found Russia increasingly isolated, beset by tough sanctions that have thrown its economy into turmoil and left the country practically friendless, apart from a few countries such as China, Belarus, and North Korea.

Overall death tolls from the fighting remained unclear, but a senior Western intelligence official, who had been briefed by multiple intelligence agencies, estimated Tuesday that more than 5000 Russian soldiers had been captured or killed so far.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said they had seen an increase in Russian air and artillery strikes on populated urban areas over the past two days.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, with a population of about 1.5 million, at least six people were killed when the region’s Soviet-era administrative building was hit. Explosions tore through residential areas, and a maternity ward was moved to an underground shelter.

Kharkiv’s Freedom Square — Ukraine’s largest plaza, and the nucleus of public life in the city — was struck with what was believed to be a missile, in an attack seen by many Ukrainians as brazen evidence that the Russian invasion wasn’t just about hitting military targets but also about breaking their spirits.

The bombardment blew out windows and walls of buildings that ring the massive central square, which was piled high with debris and dust. Inside one building, chunks of plaster were scattered, and doors, ripped from their hinges, lay across hallways.

“People are under the ruins. We have pulled out bodies,” said Yevhen Vasylenko, a representative of the Emergency Situations Ministry in Kharkiv region. In addition to the six killed, 20 were wounded in the strike, he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pronounced the attack on the main square “frank, undisguised terror,” blaming a Russian missile and calling it a war crime. “This is state terrorism of the Russian Federation,” he said.

In an emotional appeal to the European Parliament later, Zelenskyy said: “We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe. I believe that today we are showing everybody that is what we are.”

He said 16 children had been killed around Ukraine on Monday, and he mocked Russia’s claim that it is going after only military targets.

“Where are the children, what kind of military factories do they work at? What tanks are they going at, launching cruise missiles?” Zelenskyy said.

Human Rights Watch said it documented a cluster bomb attack outside a hospital in Ukraine’s east in recent days. Local residents also reported the use of the weapons in Kharkiv and the village of Kiyanka, though there was no independent confirmation.

If the allegations are confirmed, that would represent a new level of brutality in the war and could lead to even further isolation of Russia.

The Kremlin denied using such weapons.

Many military experts worry that the Kharkiv attacks mean Russia could be shifting tactics in Ukraine. Moscow’s strategy in Chechnya and Syria was to use massive artillery and air bombardments to pulverise cities and crush fighters’ resolve.

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor said he plans to open an investigation into possible war crimes in the invasion.

Unbowed by Western condemnation, Russian officials upped their threats of escalation, days after raising the specter of nuclear war. A top Kremlin official warned that the West’s “economic war” against Russia could turn into a “real one.”

The first talks Monday between the two sides yielded no stop in the fighting, though they agreed to another meeting in the coming days.

Throughout the country, many Ukrainian civilians spent another night huddled in shelters, basements, or corridors. More than a half-million people have fled the country, and the UN human rights office said it has recorded the deaths of 136 civilians. The real toll is believed to be far higher.

“It is a nightmare, and it seizes you from the inside very strongly. This cannot be explained with words,” said Kharkiv resident Ekaterina Babenko, taking shelter in a basement with neighbors for a fifth straight day. “We have small children, elderly people and frankly speaking it is very frightening.”

UN humanitarian coordinator Martin Griffiths said the bombing had damaged water pipes and electrical lines. “Hundreds of thousands of families are without drinking water,” he said.

Russian attacks on Mariupol seriously wounded several people Tuesday, and at a checkpoint outside the Black Sea city of Odesa, the body of a man lay sprawled on a highway next to a car whose back seat was covered in blood.

A Ukrainian military official said Belarusian troops joined the war Tuesday in the Chernihiv region in the north, without providing details. But just before that, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said his country had no plans to join the fight.

In Kharkiv, explosions burst one after another through a residential area in a video verified by the AP. In the background, a man pleaded with a woman to leave, and a woman cried.

Determined for life to go on despite the attacks, hospital workers transferred a Kharkiv maternity ward to a bomb shelter. Amid makeshift electrical sockets and mattresses piled up against the walls, pregnant women paced the crowded space, accompanied by the cries of dozens of newborns.

Russia’s goals in hitting central Kharkiv were not immediately clear. Western officials speculated that it is trying to pull in Ukrainian forces to defend the city while a larger Russian force encircles Kyiv.

Russian troops continued their advance toward the capital, a city of nearly 3 million. The leading edge of the convoy was 25km from the centre of the city, according to satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies.

The immense convoy, packed together along narrow roads, would seemingly be “a big fat target” for Ukrainian forces, the senior Western intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.

“But it also shows you that the Russians feel pretty comfortable being out in the open in these concentrations because they feel that they’re not going to come under air attack or rocket or missile attack,” the official said.

Increasing tensions in Kyiv, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it will target transmission facilities in the capital used by Ukraine’s intelligence agency with unspecified strikes, and urged people living near such sites to leave their homes.

Flames shot up from a military base northeast of Kyiv, in the suburb of Brovary, in footage taken from a car driving past. In another video verified by AP, a passenger pleaded with the driver, “Misha, we need to drive quickly as they’ll strike again.”

The Russian military’s movements have been stalled by fierce resistance on the ground and a surprising inability to completely dominate Ukraine’s airspace.

Ukrainians used whatever they had on hand to try to stop the Russian advance: On a highway between Odesa and Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, residents piled tractor tires filled with sand and topped with sandbags to block convoys.

In other recent developments:

• Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogancalled for an immediate cease-fire between the Russian and Ukrainian forces.
“Our call to both Russia and Ukraine is: let the firing stop as soon as possible, let Russia and Ukraine make a beautiful contribution to peace,” Erdogan said Tuesday during a joint news conference with Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu.
The Turkish leader said Turkey welcomes overtures by European Union officials toward Ukraine after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed an application to join the bloc.

• Local authorities in Switzerland are indicating that the company that ran Nord Stream 2 AG, the pipeline that was built to bring Russian gas to Germany and was halted last week, is close to bankruptcy.
Switzerland’s economy minister said on Monday that Nord Stream 2 had dismissed all the employees at its Zug, Switzerland, headquarters.
On Monday, the head of the Zug regional government’s economy department, Silvia Thalmann-Gut, told Swiss outlet Blick TV that “this isn’t a mass dismissal — it’s a mass dismissal if a company would continue to exist. But in this case, it’s a bankruptcy.”

• Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said the government has readied measures to temporarily restrict foreign investors from divesting Russian assets, saying the step would help them make “a considered decision” rather than succumb to political pressure of sanctions.
Mishustin said a presidential decree had been prepared imposing “temporary restrictions on exiting from Russian assets.” He did not provide details or say if the restrictions would apply to some forms of investment or to all.

• A Ukraine-born US congresswoman delivered an emotional plea for President Joe Biden to step up to save her country from Russia’s invasion.
Republican Representative Victoria Spartz of Indiana spoke alongside other GOP lawmakers ahead of Biden’s first State of the Union address.
“This is not a war, this is a genocide of the Ukrainian people by a crazy man,” Spartz said, without naming Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The congresswoman wore the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine and said she still has family in the region, including her 95-year-old grandmother.

• The International Energy Agency’s 31 member countries have agreed to release 60 million barrels of oil from their strategic reserves — half of that from the United States.
Tuesday’s decision by the board of the Paris-based IEA is meant “to send a strong message to oil markets” that there will be “no shortfall in supplies” after Russia invaded Ukraine.

• US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the UN’s top human rights body to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine.
The top US diplomat also singled out Russia in recorded remarks delivered to the Human Rights Council for repression within the country, citing reports that thousands of protesters in Russia who were opposed to the invasion had been detained.
Blinken urged the council to send a message that Russian President Vladimir Putin should unconditionally stop the “unprovoked attack” and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

• Canada is closing its waters and ports to Russian-owned or registered ships.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says Russia must be held accountable for its invasion of Ukraine and Canada will continue to take action.
Canada already closed its airspace to Russian aircraft and is sending anti-tank weapons and rockets to Ukraine. Canada has also announced a barrage of sanctions and is banning all crude oil imports from Russia.

• Britain is vowing to end London’s status as a haven for oligarchs and their ill-gotten gains with a law intended to prevent the real owners of businesses and properties from being hidden from view.
The government said the Economic Crime Bill will force anonymous foreign owners of UK property to reveal their real identities “to ensure criminals cannot hide behind secretive chains of shell companies.” Those who don’t comply face being unable to sell their property or a five-year prison sentence.

• Montenegro, a former ally that turned its back on Russia to enter NATO in 2017, has joined Western sanctions imposed against Moscow because of the war in Ukraine.
Montenegro’s foreign ministry said that by joining the sanctions Montenegro continues with full harmonisation of its policies with those of the European Union.
Additionally, “we are showing solidarity with Ukraine and determination to help … re-establish peace in Europe,” said the statement.

• Britain’s Prince Charles offered words of support for Ukraine on Tuesday, saying he stands with residents who are “resisting brutal aggression.”
Charles, 73, was speaking in Southend-on-Sea in eastern England, where he drew parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the murder of a local member of Parliament who was stabbed to death last year while meeting with constituents.
“What we saw in the terrible tragedy in Southend was an attack on democracy, on an open society, on freedom itself,” Charles said.
“We are seeing those same values under attack today in Ukraine in the most unconscionable way,” he said. “In the stand we take here, we are in solidarity with all those who are resisting brutal aggression.”

• French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the word “war” he used earlier to describe economic and financial sanctions against Russia was “inappropriate.”
Le Maire said in a written statement “we are determined to impose massive and efficient sanctions on Russia but we are not in a conflict against the Russian people.”
He added the word “war” is not in line with France’s “strategy of de-escalation.”
Le Maire’s statement comes after his initial comments prompted a stark warning from a senior Russian official. Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said on Twitter : “Watch your tongue, gentlemen! And don’t forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones.”

• The leadership of Ukraine’s main Holocaust memorial has asked the International Criminal Court to speak out against Vladimir Putin’s false claims of genocide in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
In a letter to ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial’s academic council said Putin’s claims that Ukraine committed genocide “is a lie”. Putin has sought to justify his invasion of Ukraine by claiming he is protecting residents in the Donbas region, where separatists have fought Ukrainian forces.

• Fearing Russia’s intervention through its regional ally Serbia, Kosovo leaders called on Nato to accelerate Kosovo’s membership into the alliance.
Kosovo has joined the United States, European Union and other global powers in slapping ever-tougher sanctions on Russia, a move which has not been done by neighbouring Serbia.

• The UN’s refugees chief is warning that many more vulnerable people will begin fleeing their homes in Ukraine if Russia’s military offensive continues and further urban areas are hit.
Filippo Grandi told reporters in Geneva that his agency has so far recorded 677,000 people fleeing from Ukraine to neighboring countries, with about half of those currently in Poland.

•The commander of the Dutch defense forces says that a shipment of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons has been handed to Ukrainian forces so they can be used to defend the country against the Russian invasion.
General Onno Eichelsheim told Dutch radio station NPO 1 that the 50 anti-tank systems and 200 Stinger anti-aircraft rockets “have been moved toward Ukraine and are at this moment being handed over to the Ukrainian armed forces.”

• Scores of diplomats have walked out of two meetings at the United Nations in Geneva in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was beamed in for a video statement, as a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lavrov spoke by video to the Conference on Disarmament and the Human Rights Council, which he had planned to attend before closure of airspace to Russian planes by several European countries prevented his travel to the Swiss city.

— AP

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