A month in, Ukraine fights on, makes Moscow pay a high price

Published on : 09:08 PM Mar 23, 2022

When Russia unleashed its invasion Feb. 24 in Europe's biggest offensive since World War II and brandished the prospect of nuclear escalation if the West intervened, a lightning-swift toppling of Ukraine's democratically elected government seemed likely.

KYIV: One month of the war, still defiant. With its government still standing and its outnumbered troops battling Russian forces to bloody stalemates on multiple fronts, Ukraine is scarred, wounded and mourning its dead but far from beaten.

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When Russia unleashed its invasion Feb. 24 in Europe's biggest offensive since World War II and brandished the prospect of nuclear escalation if the West intervened, a lightning-swift toppling of Ukraine's democratically elected government seemed likely. But with Wednesday marking four full weeks of fighting, Russia is bogged down in a grinding military campaign, with untold numbers of dead, no immediate end in sight, and its economy crippled by Western sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden and key allies are meeting in Brussels and Warsaw this week to discuss possible new punitive measures and more military aid to Ukraine.

As Biden left the White House on Wednesday for the flight to Europe, he warned there is a "real threat" Russia could use chemical weapons and said he will discuss that danger with the other leaders. The war's economic and geopolitical shockwaves — with soaring energy prices, fears for global food supplies, and Russia and China aligning in a new world order with echoes of the Cold War — have reverberated across a planet yet to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Advertisement

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With his olive-drab T-shirts, unshaven face and impassioned appeals to governments around the world for help, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been transformed into a wartime leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin's No. 1 antagonist. Addressing Japan's parliament on Wednesday, Zelenskyy said four weeks of war have killed thousands, including at least 121 of Ukraine's children.

"Our people cannot even adequately bury their murdered relatives, friends and neighbors. They have to be buried right in the yards of destroyed buildings, next to the roads," he said. Repeatedly pushed back by hit-and-run Ukrainian units armed with Western-supplied weapons, Russian troops are shelling targets from afar, falling back on tactics they used in reducing cities to ruins in Syria and Chechnya.

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Major Russian objectives remain unfulfilled. The capital, Kyiv, has been repeatedly hit but not taken or even encircled. More shelling and gunfire shook the city Wednesday, with plumes of black smoke rising from the western outskirts, where the two sides battled for control of multiple suburbs. A shopping mall and other buildings were hit, injuring four people, city officials said. Mayor Vitali Klitschko, said at least 264 civilians have been killed in the capital since war broke out.

In the south, the port city of Mariupol has seen the worst devastation of the war, under weeks of siege and bombardment. But Ukrainian forces have prevented its fall, thwarting an apparent bid by Moscow to secure a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014. Zelenskyy said 100,000 civilians remain in the city, which had a pre-war population of 430,000. It has been shattered by strikes from air, land and sea, and repeated efforts to get desperately needed food and other supplies to those trapped have often failed.

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"They bombed us for the past 20 days," said 39-year-old Viktoria Totsen, who fled from Mariupol into Poland. "During the last five days, the planes were flying over us every five seconds and dropped bombs everywhere — on residential buildings, kindergartens, art schools, everywhere." Zelenskyy, speaking Tuesday in his nightly video address to his nation, said efforts to establish humanitarian corridors for Mariupol residents are almost all being "foiled by the Russian occupiers, by shelling or deliberate terror."

He accused Russian forces of seizing one humanitarian convoy. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the Russians were holding captive 11 bus drivers and four rescue workers along with their vehicles. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross traveled Wednesday to Moscow for discussions with Russian officials on humanitarian aid, prisoners of war, and other matters.

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"The devastation caused by the conflict in recent weeks, as well as eight years of conflict in Donbas, has been vast," Red Cross President Peter Maurer said. It is not clear how much of Mariupol is still under Ukrainian control. Fleeing residents say fighting continues street by street. In their last update, over a week ago, Mariupol officials said at least 2,300 people had died, but the true toll is probably much higher. Airstrikes in the past week destroyed a theater and an art school where civilians were sheltering.

In the besieged northern city of Chernihiv, Russian forces bombed and destroyed a bridge that was used for aid deliveries and civilian evacuations, regional governor Viacheslav Chaus said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that the military operation is going "strictly in accordance with the plans and purposes that were established beforehand."

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Putin's aims remain to "get rid of the military potential of Ukraine" and to "ensure that Ukraine changes from an anti-Russian center to a neutral country," Peskov said. Officially, Russia is calling the campaign a "special military operation." It has effectively outlawed terms such as "invasion" and "war," and police have arrested thousands of antiwar protesters.

But as casualties mount and quick victory is no longer in sight, Russia is having to work to shore up morale. Under a law passed Wednesday, troops in Ukraine will get the same benefits as veterans of previous wars, including tax breaks, discounts on utilities and preferential access to medical treatment. Western officials say that Ukrainian resistance has halted much of Russia's advance and that Putin's forces are facing serious shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, with some soldiers suffering frostbite.

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Russia's military casualties are unclear, but even conservative estimates by Western officials are in the low thousands. The U.S. estimates Russia has lost slightly more than 10% of the overall combat capability it had at the start of the fight, including troops, tanks and other equipment. Britain's defense ministry said the war in northern Ukraine is largely "static."

"We have seen indications that the Ukrainians are going a bit more on the offensive now," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. He said that was particularly true in southern Ukraine, including near Kherson. But Russia's far stronger, bigger military has many Western military experts warning against overconfidence in Ukraine's long-term odds. The Kremlin's practice in past wars has been to grind down resistance with strikes that flattened cities, killing countless civilians and sending millions fleeing.

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Talks to end the fighting have continued by video. Zelenskyy said negotiations with Russia are going "step by step, but they are going forward." With no peace, those not yet fighting prepared to do so. In the western city of Lviv, gun shop owner Zakhar Sluzhalyy said: "Everything's a best-seller these days." "We're defending our land," he said. "We're fighting for our freedom and that of the rest of Europe."

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