Ukraine fighting rages as Biden warns of chemical attacks

Embattled regions were preparing for more Tuesday as local authorities and international observers warned that Russia, unable to take over key Ukrainian cities such as the capital of Kyiv, was hypersonic missiles and considering chemical attacks.

Nearly a month into the war, rescue crews were on the ground in Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, where the Ukrainian emergency service said 13 residential buildings were destroyed or damaged by shelling. In the Dnipropetrovsk region, north of the besieged port city of Mariupol, local authorities reported blasts in two towns, Zelenodolsk and Mala Kostromka, though injuries were unknown.

Rescue attempts continued in Mariupol, where satellite photos and accounts from residents who have escaped painted a picture of unending destruction. Officials have said survivors of missile attacks, including strikes on a theater and an art school that together sheltered more than 1,400 people, have been trapped under rubble for days.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Monday that about 100,000 people were still in the strategic southeastern city. More than 400,000 people lived in Mariupol before the war.

Volunteers with Ukraine's military holding their weapons

Volunteers with Ukraine’s military train in Brovary, northwest of Kyiv.

(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)

In an overnight video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russians had mounted fresh attacks on protesters in Russian-held Kherson and launched strikes in Zaporizhzhia in the south. The assaults on the Zaporizhzhia area left four children hospitalized, he said.

“The enemy is slowly trying to move to go on the offensive somewhere, to capture our road somewhere, to cross the river somewhere,” Zelensky said.

In Kherson, in southeast Ukraine, the president said Russian troops Monday shot at residents “who peacefully took to the streets without weapons at a rally for their freedom — for our freedom.” No report of injuries or deaths was given.

Ukraine reported Tuesday that its forces had recaptured a western Kyiv suburb, Makariv, giving them control of a major access point to the capital and allowing them to block Russian advances from the northwest. At the same time, the Ukrainian defense ministry said Russian troops had partially taken other northwestern Kyiv suburbs, including Bucha and Hostomel.

The mayor of Boryspil, a city 25 miles east of Kyiv, called on residents to abandon their homes because of the violence. “There is no urgent need to be in the city at the moment. Fighting is already raging around the region. I appeal to the population — be smart and leave the city if you can,” Mayor Volodymyr Borysenko said in a Facebook video.

The continued assault on Ukrainian cities came as international authorities said Russia was resorting to more destructive weapons. On Monday, President Biden said Russia was observed launching hypersonic missiles, which travel at up to 15 times the speed of sound.

“It’s a consequential weapon … but with the same warhead on it as any other launched missile. It doesn’t make that much difference except it’s almost impossible to stop it. There’s a reason they’re using it,” Biden said. The president said that Ukrainians were “wreaking havoc” on Russian troops and that Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s back is against the wall.”

Putin has made unfounded allegations that Ukraine is developing chemical weapons with US assistance. On Monday, Biden said that it was “a clear sign he’s considering using” such weapons on Ukrainians.

People walking by damaged building

A building damaged by a bomb in Kyiv, Ukraine.

(Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press)

“He’s already used chemical weapons in the past, and we should be careful about what’s to come,” said Biden, who also warned of Russian cyberattacks on American companies in retaliation for Western sanctions.

Biden is scheduled to travel Wednesday to Brussels for an emergency summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization before stopping in Poland, where more than half of Ukraine’s refugees have landed. The president is not scheduled to visit Ukraine, although other European leaders — from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia — did so last week. On Monday, the delegation of lawmakers from Lithuania traveled to Kyiv to meet with the city’s mayor and express their support.

The war has already caused more than 3.5 million people to flee Ukraine and made air-raid sirens, rubble and fires part of everyday life in Kyiv and other cities. The fighting shows little sign of stopping even as international intelligence groups said Ukrainians were largely fending off Russian advances.

The British defense ministry, in an analysis released Tuesday, said Russian forces outside Mariupol and elsewhere “have hardened yet another day of limited progress with most forces largely stalled in place.” On hypersonic missiles, the ministry said that they were “highly likely intended to detract from a lack of progress in Russia’s ground campaign.”

In another assessment, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said that Russia was sending “low-quality” and “low-readiness” reserve troops in the face of losses.

Accurate figures on military deaths are hard to come by. Numbers released earlier this month by the government said that at least 1,300 of its soldiers have died, while Russia claims the number is higher. Russia has put its own troop losses at about 500, but on Monday, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin news site, said that more than 9,800 Russian soldiers had died. It later deleted the information and said it had been hacked.

The United Nations says more than 900 civilians are dead from the war. The current number is likely much higher; Mariupol officials say that more than 2,000 people in their city alone have been killed. In addition to refugees who have left for such countries as Poland and Romania, more than 6.5 million people are internally displaced in Ukraine, according to the UN — meaning that nearly 1 of every 4 residents have fled from their homes.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, close to the Russian border in the northeast, shelling has been frequent, including one strike that last week killed a 96-year-old survivor of three World War II concentration camps. Kharkiv has been steadily attacked since the start of the invasion, but Russian troops have yet to overrun it, despite its proximity to the border.

The city, which more than 1.4 million people have fled, has desolate downtown streets that lead to crowded train stations where residents shelter overnight. Stationary subway cars keep their doors open to allow more space to sleep.

On Tuesday morning, the central subway station seemed unusually peaceful. People who had been sleeping in trains emerged from underground and started their day at 7 am Dozens surfaced in the square to bask in the sun.

Just northwest of the city, in Dergachi, an empty cluster ammunition stood upright next to a tree in front of a hospital, a reminder of the attacks the Kharkiv region had faced over the last week.

Further north, on a road in Prudyanka, an abandoned Russian military vehicle with missile launchers could be seen on the side of the road with its tires slashed. Outside a nearby cemetery, an armored personnel carrier sat abandoned.

Despite near-daily strikes on Ukrainian population centers, and the loss of territory to Russian forces in the east and south, government officials have portrayed Ukraine as winning.

“27th day of the war. Ukraine is combat-ready and logistically mature. It is bad that the war started in Ukraine, but we have proved that Ukraine is the most mobilized country,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted Tuesday.

Some areas of Ukraine have remained relatively safe. In Lviv, a western city that’s become a stopping point for refugees traveling to Poland, sirens sound each day, but populated areas have not been attacked. The closest hit has been on an unoccupied aircraft repair center on the city outskirts last week.

Zelensky has spent the last week giving daily addresses to foreign lawmakers to rally international support, including one Tuesday to the Italian Parliament. “Imagine Genoa completely burned down,” he said, comparing the destruction in Mariupol to the similarly sized Italian port city.

He also spoke with Pope Francis, who has offered for the Vatican to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also said he was willing to travel to Kyiv to broker talks.

Zelensky has asked for direct negotiations with Putin.

Russia has rebuffed the request, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that negotiations have not progressed far enough “from the Ukrainian side in order to talk about a meeting between the two presidents.” Talks are moving “much more slowly and less substantively than we would like,” Peskov said Tuesday, according to Russian state-backed news agency Tass.

Zelensky, whose nation’s desire to join NATO is enshrined in its constitution, said last week that he accepts that membership is unlikely. Russia has listed nixing Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as one of several non-negotiable demands.

In an interview Monday with the Ukrainian news outlet Suspilne, Zelensky also suggested that relinquishing Ukrainian claims to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and Donbas, a southeastern region that’s home to a pro-Russian separatist movement, were also up for discussion.

“If I have this opportunity and Russia has the desire, we would go through all the questions,” Zelensky said. “Would we solve them all? At the. But there is a chance, that we partially could — at least to stop the war. …

“At the first meeting with the president of Russia, I am ready to raise these issues,” he said of Crimea and Donbas. But he added that any “historic” changes would require a national referendum.

Yam reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine; McDonnell reported from Lviv, Ukraine; and Kaleem from London.

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