The Russian army subjected the Ukrainian port of Mariupol to relentless bombardment on Thursday as the week-long war on Ukraine took an ever greater toll on the civilian population in its largest cities.
The shelling of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov came as Russian forces tightened their grip on the south-east of the country, taking control of the Black Sea city of Kherson and pressing further northwards.
Pyotr Andriushchenko, an aide to the mayor of Mariupol, said the city was facing a “humanitarian catastrophe” with Russian forces blocking all exits and entrances to the city and preventing the evacuation of the wounded.
“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.” Shelling had injured more than 150 people in the past 24 hours, he added.
Andriushchenko said the Russians were 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 front-line city that held out against nearby pro-Russian separatists 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.
Eduard Basurin, the commander of pro-Moscow separatists in the breakaway region of Donetsk, which borders on Mariupol, called on Ukraine’s army to surrender in the city to spare it from strikes, according to the Interfax news agency.
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.
UN officials said more than a million refugees were now fleeing to neighbouring countries as Russian troops continued to unleash heavy weapons fire on Ukraine’s urban centres.
But despite a near constant onslaught that has left tens of thousands of people cowering in bomb shelters, Ukraine’s largest cities, such as the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, remain under Ukrainian government control.
The main body of a large Russian column advancing on Kyiv remains more than 30km from the city centre, delayed by “staunch Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion”, according to an intelligence update by the UK ministry of defence.
It said the column had made “little discernible progress in over three days”.
Earlier Russian troops seized control of Kherson, a big administrative centre in the south, with its capture marking a significant breakthrough for Russia’s southern campaign.
Ukraine’s military has yet to confirm the fall of Kherson, but on Wednesday evening its mayor, Igor Kolykhayev, appeared to confirm that Russian troops were in control in the city.
“Armed visitors came to us today in the City Council,” he wrote on Facebook. “I didn’t make them any promises . . . I just asked them not to shoot at people.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted: “The villages and towns where columns of Russian troops are standing immediately turn into sites of looting, robbery and murder.”
Residents of other frontline cities emerged from another night in bomb shelters to find further devastation from shelling and missiles, with the capital Kyiv hit by four huge explosions just before dawn.
A new round of talks between Russia and Ukraine did not take place on Wednesday evening as scheduled because the two sides could not agree on a location. Russia had previously said its representatives would be at a site on Ukraine’s border with Belarus and Poland. The head of Zelensky’s party in parliament signalled that Ukraine remained willing to participate in further talks.
The invasion has carried a heavy human toll, creating a fast growing refugee crisis of a scale not seen on the European continent since the fall of Nazi Germany. The UN estimates that more than 1mn mainly women and children have fled Ukraine, mostly across its border with Poland.
In an emotional speech, Zelensky said Ukrainians had lived through two world wars, the Holodomor famine, Holocaust, Soviet terror, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in the east.
“We don’t have the biggest territory . . . we don’t have nuclear arms, we don’t provide oil and gas to international markets. But we do have our people. We do have our land. This is what we are fighting for.”
Revealing the increasing challenges of the invasion and occupation, Russia on Wednesday for the first time acknowledged heavy casualties during the campaign, disclosing 498 deaths and 1,597 injuries. Ukraine said the figure is far higher but has not disclosed its own losses.
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, MSCI, the index provider, 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, secretary of state, said the US 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 said.
Blinken said he would fly to Brussels on Thursday to continue co-ordination with Nato and G7 allies, and then on to Poland and Moldova.
His visit comes as the Pentagon started to send anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to Ukraine, according to a US official, a step the White House had been reluctant to take in the run-up to the invasion. US-supplied stingers helped the mujahideen drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Neither the Russian or Ukrainian air force have established dominance of the skies above the battle zone.