Shattered Russian troops are retreating — and some are deserting — in the face of fierce resistance by Ukrainian soldiers.
Chiefs of Ukraine’s armed forces said Moscow had called in reinforcements after losing its “offensive potential”. It is an embarrassing turn of events for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had expected to quickly overwhelm Ukraine in a “short” war.
Instead, a month on, his forces are still fighting for key strategic cities. Russian forces have been unable to capture Makariv, a district located about 60km from the capital Kyiv.
Five Russian soldiers sit in a brick building. They are blindfolded: the latest prisoners to be captured inside Ukraine. A Ukrainian voice interrogates them. “Speak,” he says to the group’s Russian officer. What message would he like to send to his soldiers and to Russians back at home?
“Frankly speaking, they tricked us,” the officer replies, referring to his military superiors sitting in Moscow. “Everything we were told was a fake. I would tell my guys to leave Ukrainian territory. We’ve got families and children. I think 90% of us would agree to go home.”
But Ukraine has captured at least 217 Russian tanks, Pantsir SAM, OSA air defense system and 312 armored vehicles, according to open-source-intelligence analysts who scrutinize photos and videos on social media.
Should Makariv fall, it would allow the Kremlin to surround Kyiv in an all-out attack. Ukraine generals have celebrated the “heroic actions of our defenders”, which have forced the Russian back.
“Having lost the offensive potential, the Russian occupying troops continue forming and deploying the reserves from the depths of the Russian Federation to the borders of Ukraine,” chiefs said.
In another sign that Russian forces are growing weary of the fight, Ukraine’s Centre for Defence Strategies said occupying troops in the Okhtyrka region of Sumy “left the area of operations” in order to “choose desertion to avoid death”.
It said some Russian soldiers had stolen cars to escape the fighting over the Belarus border.
Ukraine’s generals also claim that the Russian troops only have enough food, fuel and ammunition for another several days of fighting.
It comes as Moscow’s forces in the besieged city of Mariupol have become bogged down.
Authorities in Mariupol said air strikes had turned the city into the “ashes of a dead land”.
Street fighting and bombardments rage on in the city, a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected an ultimatum from the Kremlin to surrender.
Hundreds of thousands of residents are believed to be trapped inside buildings, with no access to food, water, power or heat.
Russian forces and Russian-backed separatist units had taken about half of the port city, normally home to about 400,000 people, Russia’s RIA news agency said, citing a separatist leader.
“There is nothing left there,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a video address to Italy’s parliament.
Mariupol deputy mayor Sergei Orlov told CNN that the city was under a full blockade and had received no humanitarian aid.
“The city is under continuous bombing, from 50 bombs to 100 bombs Russian aircraft drops each day … a lot of death, a lot of crying, a lot of awful war crimes,” he said.
Mariupol has become the focus of the war that erupted on February 24 when Mr Putin sent his troops over the border on what he called a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and replace its pro-Western leadership.
The city lies on the Sea of Azov and its capture would allow Russia to link areas in the east held by pro-Russian separatists with the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
The war has forced more than 3.5 million Ukrainians to flee, brought unprecedented isolation of Russia’s economy through sanctions and raised fears of wider conflict.
Western nations plan to heap more economic pressure on the Kremlin. US President Joe Biden will join allies in applying additional sanctions and tightening existing ones during his trip to Europe this week.
The trip will include an announcement on joint action to enhance energy security in Europe, which is highly reliant on Russian gas. Mr Biden will show solidarity with Ukraine’s neighbour Poland by visiting Warsaw.
Having failed to seize the capital Kyiv or any other major city with a swift offensive, Russia is waging a war of attrition that has reduced some urban areas to rubble and prompted Western concern the conflict could escalate, possibly into a nuclear war.
Russia’s security policy dictates the country would use such weapons only if its very existence were threatened, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“If it is an existential threat for our country, then it (the nuclear arsenal) can be used,” he said.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said it had recorded 953 civilian deaths and 1557 injured since the invasion. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, speaking on television, demanded the opening of a humanitarian corridor for civilians. She said at least 100,000 people wanted to leave Mariupol but could not.
“Our military are defending Mariupol heroically,” Ms Vereshchuk said. “We did not accept the surrender ultimatum. They offered capitulation under a white flag.”
Kyiv accused Moscow of deporting residents of Mariupol and separatist-held areas of Ukraine to Russia.
It includes the “forcible transfer” of 2389 children to Russia from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said. Moscow denies forcing people to leave, saying it is taking in refugees.
In an address, Mr Zelinsky drew attention to the death of Boris Romanchenko, 96, who survived three Nazi concentration camps during World War II but was killed when his apartment block in besieged Kharkiv was shelled last week.
In killing Mr Romanchenko, “Putin managed to accomplish what even Hitler couldn’t”, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said.
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