Russia subjected the Ukrainian port of Mariupol and the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv to relentless missile bombardment on Thursday as civilians bear the brunt of a war that Vladimir Putin has declared will be won “whatever happens”.
The indiscriminate and brutal attacks on residential areas came as Russian forces tightened their grip on the south-east of Ukraine. Moscow claims to have taken control of the Black Sea city of Kherson.
Russian troops were also firing on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, according to Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba. Russia said earlier that its troops had taken control of territory around the plant, located 200km up the Dnipro river from Kherson, while the International Atomic Energy Agency urged it to avoid nuclear sites.
Kuleba said a fire had broken out at the plant. “Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!” he wrote on Twitter.
At least 22 people were killed in a strike on Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, earlier in the day with Russian cluster munitions hitting a residential area. As rockets rained down, Putin held a moment of silence for Russian casualties and blamed civilian casualties on “neo-Nazis” that he claimed were using people as “human shields”.
It was the first time Putin had addressed the human cost of the war. Russia admitted this week that 498 of its soldiers had been killed and more than 1,500 wounded. Ukraine claims that Russia has suffered more than 5,500 casualties.
In a video address to an online meeting of his security council that was broadcast on state television, Russia’s president said he would “never give up [his] conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one people”, adding that Russia’s troops were fighting “heroically”.
Putin said the families of Russian soldiers who died in battle would receive up to Rbs7.4mn ($67,445) in compensation. He also accused the “neo-Nazis” of “holding hostage” students from India and China in Kharkiv after criticism from those countries’ leaders.
The Pentagon on Thursday said Russia had now moved 90 per cent of the forces into Ukraine that it had pre-positioned along the country’s border before the invasion, an increase from its estimate of 82 per cent on Wednesday.
A second round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations concluded on Thursday, with an agreement to create humanitarian corridors for those fleeing besieged cities. But Kyiv said no further progress was made in the talks.
A US defence official said Russia had fired 480 missiles since the start of the invasion, adding that 230 missiles had been launched from mobile missile launchers that Russia had brought into Ukraine. Another 160 had been launched from inside Russia, with Putin’s forces also firing 70 missiles from Belarus and 10 from Russian navy ships in the Black Sea.
With the civilian death toll climbing, the number of people fleeing the conflict has surged. UN officials have said more than 1mn refugees were fleeing to neighbouring countries — a scale not seen in Europe since the fall of Nazi Germany.
Putin also spoke to French president Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, telling him Russia’s operations in Ukraine were “going according to plan”, according to a French official.
“Our analysis of military operations is that Russia’s ambition is indeed to take control of all of Ukraine,” the official said, adding that expectations were that the “worst was yet to come”.
In a phone call initiated at Putin’s request, the Russian president also told Macron he would engage in ceasefire talks only if Ukrainians laid down their arms. The Kremlin said Putin laid out his goal of ensuring Ukraine would “never pose a threat to Russia”, telling Macron the “objectives of [Russia’s] special operation will be achieved whatever happens”.
In Mariupol, Pyotr Andriushchenko, an aide to the mayor, said the city was facing a humanitarian catastrophe, with Russian forces blocking all exits and entrances and preventing the evacuation of the civilians.
“We have been shelled constantly for the past 20 hours,” he said by phone from the city. “For two days now, we have been without heat, electricity and water.” Artillery and rocket fire had injured more than 150 people in the past 24 hours, he added.
Andriushchenko said Russia was using Grad and Smerch multiple rocket launch systems as well as its air force to target the city, one of Ukraine’s largest ports.
The aide said Mariupol was a symbolic target, a frontline city that held out against pro-Russian separatists in the nearby breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the past eight years.
“It’s a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, that’s why they just want to turn it into a heap of ashes,” he said. “This isn’t a military operation — they’re trying to wipe this city off the face of the earth.”
Taking Mariupol would give Russia control of the whole of Ukraine’s south-eastern coast, enabling it to deal a potentially huge blow to the country’s economy by cutting off one of its biggest ports from global shipping.
The Ukrainian military said that four Russian landing ships accompanied by three missile boats were moving towards Odesa, another Black Sea port, which has so far been relatively unscathed by fighting.
Despite a near-constant onslaught, Ukraine’s largest cities, such as the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, remain under Ukrainian government control.
The US defence official said the Russian convoy north of Kyiv remained roughly 25km from the centre of the city and had shown little movement in recent days, as Russian forces continued to grapple with shortages of food and fuel.
In an emotional speech, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainians had lived through two world wars, the Holodomor — Stalin’s man-made famine during the 1930s — the Holocaust, Soviet terror, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in support of the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“We don’t have the biggest territory . . . we don’t have nuclear arms, we don’t provide oil and gas to international markets,” he said. “But we do have our people. We do have our land . . . this is what we are fighting for.”
Sanctions have hit Russia’s economy hard and its vast commodities market is being shunned by refineries, banks and shipowners. Oil has jumped to its highest level in more than nine years, with the Brent crude global benchmark hitting $118 a barrel.
In a sign of Russia’s increasing economic isolation, index provider MSCI said it would drop Russian stocks from its widely tracked emerging markets indices, warning that sanctions had made the country’s equities “uninvestable”.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said Washington remained open to a diplomatic solution, but called on Russia to first halt military operations in Ukraine. “De-escalation, pulling back forces, that would open the path to diplomacy,” he added.
Blinken said he would fly to Brussels on Thursday to continue co-ordination with Nato and G7 allies and would then go to Poland and Moldova.
His visit comes as the Pentagon starts to send anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to Ukraine, according to a US official. The White House had been reluctant to take such a step in the run-up to the invasion.
US-supplied Stingers helped the mujahideen drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Neither the Russian nor Ukrainian air forces have established dominance of the skies above the battle zone.