Russian forces tighten hold on Kyiv in attempt to topple government

Bombing intensifies as Volodymyr Zelenskiy warns ‘This night will be the hardest’

Russian forces have tightened their stranglehold on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and carried out amphibious assaults on the country’s Sea of Azov coast in an attempt to topple the government.

Almost exactly 30 years after the devastating siege of Sarajevo, another major European capital came under heavy bombardment with shells hitting apartment blocks, driving up the civilian death toll. The onslaught of bombing intensified on Friday night, accompanied by artillery rounds and heavy gunfire on the city’s streets.

In a bleak statement, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, warned that several cities were under attack. “This night will be the hardest … We must withstand. The night will be very hard, but sunrise will come.”

In the hours after he spoke, multiple explosions were reported across the capital amid reports that Russian troops were advancing on the city centre.

After the second day of the invasion, it was clear that it was being fiercely resisted, but also that Russia had much more military might yet to be unleashed on its neighbour.

  • Ukrainians prepared a last-ditch defence of their capital, with barricades, and called for civilians to arm themselves with molotov cocktails.

  • According to US estimates, Russia has fired 200 ballistic and cruise missiles at Ukraine, mostly hitting military targets but some landing in residential areas.

  • As human rights groups accused Russia of war crimes, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court issued a reminder he has jurisdiction to investigate atrocities committed inside Ukraine.

US defence officials said that the Russian offensive was facing stiffer resistance than its commanders had anticipated. They had so far not established unchallenged air superiority, for example. But the US estimates that Moscow had only committed a third of the attacking force it had mustered around Ukraine’s borders in recent months.

According to the Pentagon, 10 amphibious landing ships unloaded thousands of naval infantry to the west of Mariupol, potentially cutting off the port city.

In a televised address marked by more of the extreme rhetoric that has accompanied the invasion, Vladimir Putin described the the government in Kyiv as as “terrorists” and “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”.

Earlier in the day, Zelenskiy posted a video of himself and his aides outside the presidential office to counter Russian media rumours that he had fled.

“We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine.”

Western intelligence agencies have predicted that Zelenskiy and his top officials could be targeted for assassination as Russia seeks to decapitate the country.

“It’s clear the kind of vitriol coming from Russia about the Ukrainian leadership, so I think we can expect that they would be targets for Russian forces coming into the city,” one western official said.

Russia was forced to vote alone at the UN security council on Friday night against a resolution deploring its actions. As Russia holds a veto, the resolution was not upheld, but the US and its allies score a small diplomatic victory by persuading China not to vote with Russia but abstain, by slightly watering down the language. They were unable to win over India and the United Arab Emirates, who also abstained.

Tremors from the invasion continued to spread around the world on Friday, demonstrating the potential for the already disastrous conflict to spill over Ukraine’s borders.

Nato activated its rapid response force which had been established as a contingency in the event of a serious threat on the alliance’s flank.

The Kremlin also issued a direct threat to Finland and Sweden, which have been openly contemplating Nato membership as a result of the invasion.

“Their accession to Nato can have detrimental consequences … and face military and political consequences,” the foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said.

Earlier in the day, barricades went up around the city as its defenders set up positions on bridges prepared for an onslaught, more Russian troops converged on the city from three directions, and Putin urged Ukraine’s military to seize power from the elected government, and bow to his demands to disarm and rule out Nato membership.

Streams of people – mostly women and children, since Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are forbidden to leave – crossed into Hungary, Poland and Romania, with 15-hour queues reported at border points. Guards fired warning shots to prevent a stampede at Kyiv’s central station as thousands tried to force their way on to evacuation trains.

People wait to board a evacuaition train from Kyiv to Lviv.
People wait to board a evacuaition train from Kyiv to Lviv. Photograph: Ümit Bektaş/Reuters

Ukrainian officials claimed nearly 3,000 Russian servicemen had been killed so far, but warned that advance enemy units had already entered the Obolonskyi district of northern Kyiv. The defence ministry advised residents to “prepare molotov cocktails”.

The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, said the city had entered “a defensive phase”. He added: “Shots and explosions are ringing out … and saboteurs have already entered Kyiv. The enemy wants to put the capital on its knees and destroy us.”

In video footage thought to be from south Ukraine, near Crimea, a Ukrainian civilian was shown standing in front of an advancing Russian military convoy, in scenes reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which a lone Chinese protestor stood in front of a tank, stopping its advance.

US officials estimated Russia had launched more than 200 missiles at Ukraine, including both ballistic and cruise weapons. They said most had been aimed at military targets but that some had landed in residential districts, and that it was unclear whether that was accidental or deliberate.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, issued a reminder that he had the authority to investigate war crimes inside Ukraine and Amnesty International accused the Russian military of “indiscriminate attacks” after investigating several incidents, including a missile strike on a hospital building in Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine, which killed four civilians and wounded 10 more.

A property in Kyiv is heavily damaged from an explosion.
A property in Kyiv is heavily damaged from an explosion. Photograph: Maia Mikhaluk/PA

In another sign of the war’s potential to spin out of control, two more merchant ships were hit by errant missile strikes in the Black Sea, a Japanese bulk carrier and a Moldovan chemical tanker.

Zelenskiy earlier on Friday accused Europe of not being hard or quick enough in sanctioning Russia earlier, urging citizens to compel their governments to do more to stop Putin’s invasion.

“Europe has enough strength to stop this aggression,” he said. “You have to act swiftly. We demand effective counteraction to the Russian Federation. Sanctions must be further strengthened.”

The Ukrainian government continued its appeals to the EU to step up its sanctions, expressing bitter disappointment that the measures taken so far had not included Russia’s exclusion from the Swift global electronic payments system.

The German finance ministry said on Friday that it was open to the proposal of including Swift sanctions, while the US, EU and the UK moved to freeze the foreign-held assets of Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The US also sanctioned Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov.

The initiative was largely symbolic, as the Russian president is not thought to have identifiable personal wealth abroad. However, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told a Russian TV station Friday night that relations with the west “have reached the line after which the point of no return begins”.

In Kyiv, Zelenskiy said in a televised address that Putin was targeting civilian as well as military sites. “They say that civilian objects are not a target for them. It is a lie; they do not distinguish in which areas to operate,” he said, vowing to continue defending his country and criticising world leaders for “watching from afar”.

In Russia, thousands of people defied tough anti-protest legislation to stage anti-war rallies across the country on Thursday night. OVD-Info, which monitors arrests at opposition protests, said more than 1,800 people in 59 cities had been detained.

Lt Gen Jim Hockenhull, the UK’s head of defence intelligence, released a statement to reporters about the state of the fighting in Ukraine: “Russian forces continue to advance on two axes towards Kyiv. Their objective is to encircle the capital, to secure control of the population and change the regime..”


Emma Graham-Harrison in Kyiv, Peter Beaumont and Luke Harding in Lviv, Julian Borger in Washington and Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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