Russian forces have kept up their bombardment of cities across Ukraine, capturing the eastern outskirts of a key southern port and waging an increasingly violent campaign with an eye to encircling the capital even as they sought to bring a political veneer to their occupation in cities they have captured.
Moscow also signaled it could soon expand the war to embroil Kyiv’s allies, warning the U.S. that it would consider convoys carrying weapons to Ukraine to be “legitimate targets.” A few hours later, the White House announced it would send an additional $200 million in arms and equipment for Ukraine.
While wide-scale Russian bombing campaigns intensified in cities including Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, Russian forces planned to conduct a referendum that would turn the city of Kherson the first major city captured by Russian forces earlier this month into a vassal breakaway republic, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“Given zero popular support, it will be fully staged,” he said, warning that it was a repeat of Russia’s playbook in 2014, when Russia-backed separatists held a referendum that led to the creation of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in eastern Ukraine. “Severe sanctions against Russia must follow if they proceed. Kherson is & will always be Ukraine.”
Sergey Khlan, a deputy in the Kherson Regional Council, said that Russian authorities were contacting deputies and asking for their cooperation in holding the referendum to create a putative Kherson People’s Republic.
“The creation of Kherson People’s Republic will turn our region into a hopeless hole without life and future,” Khlan wrote. “Do not give them a single vote! Do not give them any opportunity to legitimize [the Kherson People’s Republic]. … Enter the history of Ukraine not as traitors whom nobody wants, but truly as citizens whose names will be remembered by the next generations.”
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that shipments of Western weapons to Ukraine could be attacked by Russian forces. Western nations’ “thoughtless transfer” of portable air defense and antitank missile systems to Kyiv, Ryabkov said, demonstrated “the escalatory component of Washington’s policy.”
The White House announced it had approved an additional $200 million in arms and equipment for Ukraine, on top of $350 million President Biden approved last month.
“We have warned the U.S. that the U.S.-orchestrated inundation of Ukraine with weapons from some countries is not just a dangerous move, but also an action that makes these convoys legitimate targets,” Ryabkov said. The Russian diplomat did not say whether Russian forces would target such convoys in Poland or Romania, NATO countries that border Ukraine.
The confrontational talk came on a day that Russian forces sustained “heavy losses in manpower and equipment” in areas northeast of Kyiv and were prevented from regaining a foothold on previously captured frontiers, according to the Ukrainian military.
Northwest of the capital, the bulk of Russian ground forces were gathered about 15 miles from the city center. Parts of the large Russian column north of Kyiv had dispersed, either in an effort to encircle the city or limit its risk of Ukrainian counterattacks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said more than 12,700 people evacuated Saturday, taking advantage of humanitarian corridors. But not everyone was allowed safe passage.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense claimed Russian troops shot at a group of women and children who were trying to evacuate from the small village of Peremoga, 18 miles northeast of Kyiv, along a previously agreed-upon “green” corridor. “The result of this brutal act was seven dead,” the ministry said, “One of them is a child.”
Early in the morning, loud explosions reverberated near the capital. Rumbles louder and closer than the booms of previous days could be heard throughout the day and well into the night in Kyiv. They served as the calling card of the Russian pincers stretching toward the capital from its northeastern and northwestern flanks.
Despite holding off enemy forces from the capital, Ukrainian officials admitted a bitter defeat, acknowledging that Russia had seized the eastern suburban fringes of Mariupol, a strategic city in the southeastern Donetsk region that could allow it to build a land corridor from pro-Moscow enclaves in the east to Russian-annexed Crimea in the south.
Russian shelling of the city hit a mosque sheltering more than 80 people, including children, according to the Ukrainian government, and repeated efforts to evacuate 430,000 residents have failed as their convoys have come under artillery fire. Dozens of buses loaded with humanitarian supplies were reported to be attempting to reach the city.
“Let’s see whether this one gets here or not,” Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov said, noting that six previous attempts to bring food, water and medicine to his beleaguered city were unsuccessful. “I think we can say we’re in the disaster phase now,” Alex Wade, an emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders said, noting that residents had gone a week without access to clean drinking water and were using snow and rainwater and breaking into heating systems to extract the water inside.
“The next phase we will see people who potentially could die from dehydration and hunger or … fleeing from the city trying to find food and water and dying from the violence outside the city,” he said.Some residents, he said, had already taken their neighbors’ bodies and buried them in their yards to ensure they were not left to languish on the street.In Mykolaiv, another major Black Sea port and shipbuilding center about 300 miles west of Mariupol, Mayor Olexandr Senkevitch said that eight civilians were injured and more than 160 houses, three hospitals and 11 educational institutions were damaged overnight.“We will definitely repair and restore everything,” he said. “We heal the wounded. And defeat these damn orcs,” referring to the Ukrainian nickname for Russian forces.With those forces assembled about 15 miles outside Kyiv, Zelensky struck a confident tone from inside the capital, where citizen militias are armed with missiles, machine guns and Molotov cocktails.“We know 100% there will be a victory,” he said.
In Melitopol, 120 miles west of Mariupol, hundreds gathered on the streets Saturday to demand the release of the southern city’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, who the Ukrainian government has said was kidnapped from a government office Friday by Russian forces.“Fedorov!” the crowd chanted. “Free the mayor!”