(Editor’s note: The following article was written in a fluid situation and contains information that was current as of 6 p.m. Kyiv time on March 9.)
WARSAW – Russia has resorted to wholesale bombing and shelling of civilian areas – including a maternity ward – as Moscow’s invading forces face heroic resistance from a battle-hardened Ukrainian army and grass-roots territorial defense forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to conquer the country in blitzkrieg fashion began on February 24. The renewed invasion of Ukraine has led to mounting sanctions and heavy casualties for his economy and military.
Called a “dictator” by U.S. President Joe Biden, and a “terrorist” by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the longtime Kremlin leader’s actions are being called war crimes.
In light of losing the tactical advantage of launching what appeared to be a multi-pronged attack with overwhelming forces, which included using neighboring Belarus as a springboard for the offensive, Russia has increasingly started to raze whole villages and larger cities to the ground.
The lost momentum of trying to take over huge swaths of land the size of Texas or France has raised fears that Russian bombardments would continue to intensify amid the failure of Mosco’s ground forces to achieve their objectives of taking key cities in Ukraine, among them Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Dnipro.
“Russian forces appear to be reverting to their old methodology of leveling cities and apparently indiscriminate bombing,” U.S. Army Col. Yevgeny “Eugene” Vindman told USA Today, referring to what Russia did to the Chechen capital of Grozny or Aleppo in Syria.
“The civilian death toll is likely to skyrocket,” Mr. Vindman said, adding that, “Russian forces are underperforming, and Ukrainian forces are overperforming.”
Some 500 civilians have been killed and another 1,335 wounded so far, the U.N. human rights office says, while admitting that its assessment is incomplete and most likely understated.
“This concerns, for example, the towns of Volnovakha, Mariupol [both in Donetsk Oblast], Izyum [in the Kharkiv region]where there are allegations of hundreds of civilian casualties,” the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Humand Rights (OHCHR) said in a statement.
Ukraine says more than 2,000 civilians have been killed. For example, the mayor of Mariupol, the Donetsk region’s second-largest city under Ukraine’s control, said on March 9 that at least 1,200 civilians have been killed by Russian bombardment.
Mr. Zelenskyy, the nation’s second war-time president, said that 52 Ukrainian children have so far been killed “in the middle of Europe, in the year 2022.”
Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, which started in 2014 with the forcible seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, is the European continent’s only ongoing bloody war.
“The enemy [Russia] can destroy the walls of our homes, our schools, our churches,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in his daily address to the nation on March 9. “It can shatter Ukrainian enterprises. But it will never get to our soul, our heart, to our ability to live freely and fight bravely.”
After several failed attempts, Kyiv and Moscow finally agreed to a 12-hour ceasefire that started at 9 a.m. Ukraine time on March 9 to evacuate civilians from six areas.
They included Mariupol and Volnovakha in the Donetsk region; Enerhodar in the Zaporizhia region; Sumy in Sumy Oblast; Izyum in the Kharkiv region; and the Kyiv suburbs of Vorzel, Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel.
Hours before safe passage was supposed to commence, 21 civilians, including two children, were killed in Sumy northeast of Kyiv during a Russian air raid, according to the regional prosecutor’s office. Located 48 kilometers from the Russian border, Sumy has faced incessant shelling and bombardment since the second day of Moscow’s latest invasion.
Earlier this week, the Red Cross said a planned evacuation of battered Mariupol was delayed when land mines were discovered along the route, presumably by the Russian military.
Before the evacuation of the besieged port city of Mariupol, its residents had been without water and electrical power for nine days. On March 9, a devastating Russian airstrike hit a children’s hospital with a maternity ward, wounding at least 17 people, according to an Al Jazeera report which cited Volodymir Nikulin, a top regional police official, as the source of the information.
On March 8, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi reported that more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees in just 12 days. He said more than half – some 1.2 million people – have fled to Poland. The U.N. high commission on refugees also reported that, “As the situation continues to unfold, an estimated 4 million people may flee Ukraine.” The situation has quickly become Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
Despite the relative lull in fighting, Russia is still advancing to encircle the key cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Mykolayiv and Chernihiv. U.S. intelligence says that all of Russia’s pre-invasion force of some 150,000 troops and military hardware are now deployed in the country.
Most of Moscow’s successes have been in the south where Russia is trying to create a land bridge from its mainland to occupied Crimea. If Mariupol along the Azov Sea and Odesa along the Black Sea coast fall, Ukraine will be landlocked from both seas.
The Center for Defense Strategies, a Kyiv-based think tank, said earlier this week that about one-third of that invasion force has been destroyed or rendered incapable of continued fighting.
More than 12,000 Russian military personnel have been killed as of March 8, according to Ukraine’s military.
A U.S. intelligence briefing at the House of Representatives said that Russia has lost up to 4,000 troops, though they added that analysts had “low confidence” in that number because of the difficulty of verifying information on the ground in Ukraine, an NBC news report said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine isn’t disclosing its casualty figures and Russia only said it lost about 500 personnel in the first days of the renewed offensive against Ukraine.
“Russia will not be able to sustain such casualties for very long,” Mr. Vindman said.
For example, Ukraine said that on March 8 Russia lost “more than 400 servicemen” among “14 separate purpose brigades” who are regularly stationed in Khabarovsk in the Far East in a battle somewhere “on the territory of Ukraine.”
At midnight on March 9, Ukraine’s military acknowledged it no longer fully controls the Kyiv satellite towns of Borodyanka, Kopyliv, Bucha and Demidiv. About 17 Russian battalion tactical groups hold the southern “settlements of Kherson, Enerhodar [the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power station]and Vasylivka,” the Ukrainian military said.
Successful, albeit minor, counterattacks were launched against encircling Russian forces in the southern port city of Mykolaiv, Kharkiv in the east and in Mariupol. Kyiv officials said Russian forces were pushed back northward to prevent continuous shelling. Combined forces in Mariupol neutralized manpower, destroyed hardware and captured some Russian military equipment for use. Near Mykolayiv, about 30 helicopters were destroyed further south at an airbase in the Kherson region.
Invoking British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Mr. Zelenskyy on March 8 addressed Britain’s parliament via video link to say that Ukraine will “fight to the end.”
Ukrainian military reports also pointed out that a possible invasion directly on western Ukraine is possible. They cited intelligence reports saying that Belarusian forces are on the highest level of combat readiness. There is a direct route from the Brest region in Belarus to Lviv through Volyn Oblast in Ukraine. Kyiv, however, has noted that the high military command of Belarus is “demoralized” and unwilling to participate on the ground to help Russia.
The inactive yet still hazardous Chornobyl nuclear power plant is no longer transmitting communication, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on March 9. IAEA director Rafael Mariano Grossi said that the plant’s 210 staff need to be rotated, implying they are being held hostage by occupying Russian forces who are not allowing staff shift changes. Ukraine’s energy regulator said that there is limited access to food, water and medicines at Chornobyl where a nuclear energy containment area is located, AFP reported.
War crimes, sanctions, talks
Russia didn’t appear at The Hague on March 7 for a hearing on genocide at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. Kyiv filed the complaint.
Also, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court is already investigating Russia for possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
There is also a second trial at another international court currently beginning. The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has already begun investigations into whether the Russian president or other leading figures in the Kremlin are responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
Mr. Vindman said “there is evidence that Russian attacks are in violation of the laws of war.”
In speaking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper at night on March 9, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, called the attacks in Ukraine a “mass murder of civilians. That’s what it is.”
Asked by Mr. Cooper whether he was surprised the Russian military has attacked Ukrainian civilians, Mr. Bleich said, “A week ago, or two weeks ago, it would have been unbelievable. But I think, at this time, the world should have their eyes open and understand that this is a war, not against an army of citizens, but it’s a war against a people.”
“It’s not even ironic, it’s cynical that Putin said that he’s coming to save the Russian people from the Ukrainian fascists when indeed he’s been bombing Russian speaking cities and just wiping them off the face of the earth,” the rabbi said.
“It doesn’t even shock me that he’s bombed hospitals, orphanages and children’s homes. It’s just anything and everything. It’s a war against everyone to wipe out everyone,” Mr. Bleich said. It is an effort to “bring Ukraine down to its knees to give in.”
While the U.N. and the ICC begin to investigate the case of war crimes being committed in Ukraine, Putin earlier in 2019 revoked a key element of the Geneva Convention that authorizes investigations into alleged war crimes against civilians.
Turkey is expected to mediate discussions in Ankara between Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on March 10. Three rounds mid-level discussions since the invasion between the two countries have ended inconclusively.
In an interview with ABC news, Mr. Zelenskyy also suggested that Ukraine is willing to accept non-bloc NATO status after saying he had “cooled down” on the idea of Ukraine formally joining the alliance.
“Regarding NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question long ago after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine,” Mr. Zelenskyy said on March 7.
His deputy chief of staff, Ihor Zhovkva, said two days later that Ukraine won’t surrender a “single inch” of territory, however, in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
“Surely, we are ready for a diplomatic solution,” Mr. Zhovkva, who works on foreign policy, said. He added that security guarantees should come from Ukraine’s neighbors, though he did not offer additional information or elaborate on his statement.
Fears, more sanctions
At the same U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said she thinks the increasingly isolated Russian president will further clamp down on Ukraine.
It’s a war that “he cannot afford to lose,” Ms. Haines said, adding that the already bloody conflict could transform into a protracted “persistent and significant insurgency.”
“I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” CIA Director William Burns added, according to a Newsweek report. “He is likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.”
Russia faced further severance from the global financial system when the U.S. announced it was banning Russian oil imports, “cutting [off]the main artery” of Russia’s economy.
About 8 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Russia. The U.S. doesn’t import any Russian natural gas.
Meanwhile, British Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng announced that the country will phase out Russian imports of oil and related products by the end of the year.