The growing ferocity of missile and artillery attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv on Wednesday signalled that the feared full-scale siege of Ukraine’s two biggest cities had begun.
In the face of Ukraine’s dogged defence of urban areas, Russia’s strategy has shifted in recent days towards more devastating assaults on cities that have so far repelled ground incursions. The level of civilian casualties has soared.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that 80 per cent of the Russian forces Moscow had amassed on Ukraine’s borders before last week’s invasion had now entered Ukraine.
Russian weapons inside Ukraine include launcher systems that could be used to fire “thermobaric” bombs, which draw in oxygen to create an especially intense explosion, US officials said.
“What’s coming down the road to Kyiv and other cities now is a wholly different order of magnitude of potential military force,” said General Sir Richard Barrons, former commander of the UK’s Strategic Command.
“That is something that will be in use I would imagine in the next 48 hours or so . . . We’re about to see a step change in violence potentially,” he told BBC Northern Ireland Radio on Tuesday.
The UK’s ministry of defence said on Wednesday morning that “heavy Russian artillery and air strikes have continued to target built-up areas over the past 24 hours”.
A missile strike hit a police headquarters in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second- largest city on Wednesday morning, where the regional governor said at least 21 people were killed and 112 wounded over the past 24 hours. That followed a strike on Kyiv’s main television tower on Tuesday evening, and the shelling of residential areas in the west and east of the capital overnight.
Russia also used missiles to strike targets in Zhytomyr, a town west of Kyiv that hosts an airbase, in a sign that Moscow may turn its attention to the western third of the country, the route out for most refugees fleeing the conflict. Four people were killed in the strike that hit residential areas, Ukrainian officials said.
At the same time, the front of a Russian military convoy that stretched more than 60km on Tuesday had reached Kyiv’s outskirts, putting the city centre within the firing range of the BM-21 Grad rockets that Russia has used with devastating effect to hit residential areas in Kharkiv.
Russia has air superiority in Ukraine but not dominance. So the possibility of bombing the Russian convoy has intensified calls from Ukraine for Nato allies to enact a no-fly zone over the country.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, said that option remained off the table as it would effectively mark a declaration of war by Nato on Russia.
Moreover, it might not reduce Russia’s levels of urban bombardment. “The bombardment they are doing is from Russian artillery. So a no-fly zone would not affect that,” he told the BBC.
A senior US defence official said the Russian military continued to face problems prosecuting its campaign in Ukraine due to logistical problems that seemed to be slowing the progress of this advance on Kyiv.
The official said on Tuesday evening that the main Russian advance on the capital had made little progress over the past 24 hours, amid continued resistance from Ukrainian forces and signs of growing logistical constraints, including insufficient fuel supplies.
“It is not exactly moving with great speed. They continue to be bogged down, coming down from the north, to get to Kyiv,” the official said. “We are also picking up signs that they’re having problems feeding their troops, that they’re not only running out of gas but they are running out of food.”
Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Dublin