Ukrainian authorities said on Sunday that Russia’s military bombed an art school sheltering some 400 people in the port city of Mariupol, where heavy street fighting was underway weeks into a devastating Russian siege.
The fall of Mariupol would allow Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine to link up. But Western military analysts say that even if the surrounded city is taken, the troops battling for control there a block at a time may be too depleted to help secure Russian breakthroughs on other fronts.
Three weeks into the invasion, Western governments and analysts see the conflict shifting to a war of attrition, with bogged down Russian forces launching long-range missiles at cities and military bases as Ukrainian forces carry out hit-and-run attacks and seek to sever their supply lines.
Ukrainians “have not greeted Russian soldiers with a bunch of flowers,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN, but with “weapons in their hand.”
Moscow cannot hope to rule the country, he added, given Ukrainians’ enmity toward the Russian forces.
The strike at the art school was the second time in less than a week that officials reported an attack on a public building where Mariupol residents had taken shelter. On Wednesday, a bomb hit a theater where more than 1,000 people were believed to be sheltering.
There was no immediate word on casualties at the school, which The Associated Press could not independently verify. Ukrainian officials have not given an update on the search of the theater since Friday, when they said at least 130 people had been rescued and another 1,300 were trapped by rubble.
City officials and aid groups say food, water and electricity have run low in Mariupol and fighting has kept out humanitarian convoys. Communications are severed, making it difficult to verify reports from there.
The strategic port on the Sea of Azov has been under bombardment for over three weeks and has seen some of the worst horrors of the war. City officials said at least 2,300 people had died, with some buried in mass graves.
“To do this to a peaceful city, what the occupiers did, is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” Zelenskyy said in a nightly video address to Ukraine. “The more Russia uses terror against Ukraine, the worse the consequences for it.”
Unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance has dashed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for a fast victory after he ordered the Feb. 24 invasion of his neighbor. In recent days, Russian forces have entered Mariupol, cutting it off from the sea and devastating a massive steel plant. But the city’s fall could prove a costly victory.
“The block-by-block fighting in Mariupol itself is costing the Russian military time, initiative, and combat power,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a briefing.
In a blunt assessment of the war, the think tank concluded that Russia failed in its initial campaign to take the capital of Kyiv, and other major cities quickly and its stalled invasion is creating the conditions for a “very violent and bloody” stalemate.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukrainian resistance means Putin’s “forces on the ground are essentially stalled.”
“It had the effect of him moving his forces into a woodchipper,” Austin told CBS on Sunday.
In major cities across Ukraine, hundreds of men, women and children have already been killed in Russian bombardments, while millions have raced to underground shelters or fled the country.
At least 20 babies carried by Ukrainian surrogate mothers are stuck in a makeshift bomb shelter in Kyiv, waiting for parents to enter the war zone to pick them up. The infants – some only days old – are being cared for by nurses trapped in the shelter by constant shelling from Russian troops trying to encircle the city.
In the hard-hit northeastern city of Sumy, authorities evacuated 71 orphaned babies through a humanitarian corridor, regional Gov. Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said Sunday. He said the orphans, most of whom need constant medical attention, would be taken out of the country.
Russian shelling killed at least five civilians, including a 9-year-old boy, in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest.
The British Defense Ministry said Russia’s failure to gain control of Ukrainian airspace “has significantly blunted their operational progress,” forcing them to rely on weapons launched from Russia.
A rocket attack on the Black Sea port city of Mykolaiv early Friday killed as many as 40 marines, a Ukrainian military official told The New York Times, in one of the deadliest single attacks on Ukrainian forces.
In a separate strike, the Russian Defense Ministry said a Kinzhal hypersonic missile hit a Ukrainian fuel depot in Kostiantynivka, a city near Mykolaiv. The Russian military said Saturday that it used a Kinzhal for the first time in combat to destroy an ammunition depot in the and destroyed an armor repair plant in northern Ukraine.
Western analysts have played down the hypersonic weapon’s significance, saying it did not give Moscow an extra advantage but was a tool the Kremlin could use to advertise its military might and warn other countries against intervening.
“It’s not a game-changer,” but rather a “message of intimidation and deterrence towards Ukraine and towards the West,” said Valeriy Akimenko, senior research associate at the Conflict Studies Research Center in England.
UN bodies have confirmed more than 847 civilian deaths since the war began but concede the actual toll is likely much higher. The UN says nearly 3.4 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees.
Estimates of Russian deaths vary, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands. Ukrainian authorities reported that six Russian generals have died. The death of one general was confirmed by his associate and an officers’ group in Russia, but the military has not confirmed any.
Russia would need 800,000 troops – almost its entire active-duty military – to control Ukraine for an extended period, according to Michael Clarke, former head of the British-based Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank.
“Unless the Russians intend to be completely genocidal – they could flatten all the major cities, and Ukrainians will rise up against Russian occupation – there will be just constant guerrilla war,” Clarke said.
Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of negotiations but remain divided over several issues. Zelenskyy has said he is willing to drop Ukraine’s bid to join NATO but wants certain security guarantees from Russia. Moscow is pressing for Ukraine’s complete demilitarization.
Mariupol authorities said Sunday that nearly 40,000 people had left the city in the last week, the vast majority in their own vehicles, despite ongoing bombardment. That alone amounts to nearly 10% of the city’s prewar population of 430,000.
The Mariupol city council said Saturday that Russian soldiers had forcibly relocated several thousand residents, mostly women and children, to Russia. AP could not confirm the claim.
Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said Sunday that 2,973 people have been evacuated from Mariupol since March 5, including 541 in the last 24 hours.
Some Russians also have fled their country amid a widespread crackdown on dissent. Russia has arrested thousands of antiwar protesters, muzzled independent media and cut access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
In Ukraine, Zelenskyy ordered the activities of 11 political parties with links to Russia to be suspended during the period of martial law. The largest of those parties has 44 out of 450 seats in parliament.
“Activities by politicians aimed at discord and collaboration will not succeed,” he said.
Also Read: Russia, Ukraine nearing agreement on ‘critical’ issues: Turkey
Also Read: US ‘Indo-Pacific strategy as dangerous as NATO expansion resulting in Ukraine crisis: China