Russian forces seize first major Ukrainian city

Vladimir Putin’s forces over-ran their first major Ukrainian city last night and unleashed heavy weapons fire on urban centers, driving the number of refugees who have fled the country to more than a million after just eight days of war.

The reported seizure of Kherson, a provincial capital and Black Sea port, would mark a significant breakthrough for Russia’s southern campaign, which has made steady territorial advances unlike its northern offensive.

Its capture has yet to be confirmed by Ukraine’s military, but on Wednesday evening its mayor Igor Kolykhayev suggested Russian troops had secured the city.

Residents of Ukraine’s 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.

Russian forces are pounding the critical infrastructure of Ukraine’s biggest cities, often using indiscriminate firepower, while armored columns are advancing on Kyiv, assaulting the northeast city of Kharkiv, and encircling the port city of Mariupol.

A Russian military truck and tank drive through Kherson in Ukraine on Tuesday © via Reuters

The Ukrainian military said that four Russian landing ships accompanied by three missile boats were moving towards the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa, which has so far been relatively unscathed by fighting.

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.

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. Wheat prices climbed above $ 11 a bushel for the first time since 2008.

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”. Fitch and Moody’s also joined rival S&P Global in cutting Russia’s sovereign credit rating to junk.

Russia on Wednesday claimed to have taken the port city of Kherson but still faced pockets of resistance in the town.

“Armed visitors came to us today in the City Council,” Kherson’s mayor wrote in a Facebook post outlining curfew rules. “I’m only interested in getting our city working normally again,” he added. “I just asked [the Russians] not to shoot at people. ”

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 Mujahedeen 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.

After another night of heavy shelling, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces were still pushing to reach the northern outskirts of Kyiv. Western officials said this advance has stalled in the face of unexpected resistance, logistical hurdles and shortages of fuel and food.

Intense fighting was reported in the south-eastern city of Mariupol, which has been heavily bombarded in recent days as Russian forces enveloped the port city.

Mariupol’s mayor said that water, heat and electricity services had been severely disrupted – a potential sign of Moscow attempting siege warfare. Eduard Basurin, the Donetsk separatist commander, called on Ukraine’s army to surrender in the city to spare the city from strikes, according to the Interfax news agency.

Ukraine’s army said three civilians had been killed during shelling on the eastern city of Izyum: one shell fell on a high-rise building, another on a private house.

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