KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian strikes pounded the central square in Ukraine’s second-largest city and other civilian targets Tuesday and a 40-mile convoy of tanks and other vehicles threatened the capital. Ukraine’s embattled president accused Moscow of resorting to terror tactics to press Europe’s largest ground war in generations.
With the Kremlin increasingly isolated by tough economic sanctions that have tanked the ruble currency, Russian troops advanced on Ukraine’s two biggest cities on Day 6 of an invasion that has shaken the 21st century world order. In Kharkiv, a strategic eastern city with a population of about 1.5 million, explosions tore through the region’s Soviet-era administrative building and residential areas. The underground shelter has been used to relocate a maternity ward.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the targeted attack on Kharkiv’s main square “frank, undisguised terror,” blaming a Russian missile and calling it a war crime. “Nobody will forgive. “Nobody will forgive. … This is state terrorism of the Russian Federation.”
In an emotional appeal to the European Parliament later, Zelensky said: “We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe. I believe that today we are showing everybody that is what we are … We have proven that, as a minimum, we are the same as you.”
There are reports that Moscow may have used cluster bombs against three cities in addition to its strikes on them. If confirmed, that would represent a worrying new level of brutality in the war—and could lead to even further isolation in Russia.
Already, with Western powers sending weapons to Ukraine and driving a global squeeze of Russia’s economy, President Vladimir Putin’s options have diminished as he seeks to redraw the global map—and pull Ukraine’s western-leaning democracy back into Moscow’s orbit.
The Kremlin denied Tuesday that it has used such munitions and insisted again that its forces only have struck military targets—despite evidence documented by AP reporters of shelling of homes, schools and hospitals.
Unbowed by Western condemnation, Russian officials upped their threats of escalation—days after raising the specter of a nuclear attack. The Russian defense minister vowed Tuesday to press the offensive until it achieves its goals, while a top Kremlin official warned that the West’s “economic war” against Russia could turn into a “real one.”
The fighting continued Monday despite the first round of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. However, both sides reached an agreement to meet again in the coming days.
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Numerous civilians from Ukraine spent another night in hiding, underground, or on corridors. The U.N. human Rights office stated Tuesday that it recorded the death of 136 civilians and 13 children. More than half-million have fled the country. The true toll could be far greater.
“It is a nightmare, and it seizes you from the inside very strongly. This cannot be explained with words,” said Kharkiv resident Ekaterina Babenko, taking shelter in a basement with neighbors for a fifth straight day. “We have small children, elderly people and frankly speaking it is very frightening.”
According to a Ukrainian military officer, Belarusian soldiers joined the conflict in Chernihiv on Tuesday. He did not provide details. Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus stated that the country was not planning to join in fighting.
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The precision bombing of Kharkiv’s Freedom Square—Ukraine’s largest plaza, and the nucleus of public life for the city—was a turning point for many Ukrainians, brazen evidence that the Russian invasion wasn’t just about hitting military targets but also about breaking their spirits.
Strikes tore out windows or damaged walls in buildings around the central square. The area was littered with dust and debris. In one building, plaster fragments were scattered and doors that had been dragged off their hinges lay in hallways.
“People are under the ruins, we have pulled out bodies,” said Yevhen Vasylenko, representative of the Emergency Situations Ministry in Kharkiv region. According to Yevhen Vasylenko, the strike resulted in at least six deaths and more than 20 injuries.
Regional administration chief Oleh Sinehubov said that at least 11 people were killed and scores of others were wounded the day before, during Monday’s shelling of the city. According to officials, more people were injured Tuesday.
One video from AP shows how explosions ripped through a Kharkiv residential neighborhood. A man tried to get a woman out, but she refused.
Hospital workers moved a Kharkiv hospital maternity ward into a bomb shelter, determined to continue life despite the terrorist attacks. The screams of many newborns echoed through the space as pregnant women ran around the cramped area, while they slept on mattresses and madeshift electric sockets.
Russia’s goals in hitting central Kharkiv were not immediately clear. Western officials suggested that Russia is trying to bring in Ukrainian forces to defend Kharkiv while an even larger Russian force surrounds Kyiv. They believe Putin’s overall goal is to overthrow the Ukrainian government and install a friendly one.
Zelenskyy claimed that Russia used the strikes as a way to pressure his government. He did not offer details of the talks between Ukrainian and Russian envoys, but he said Monday night that Kyiv was not prepared to make concessions “when one side is hitting another with rocket artillery.”
Russian troops began to advance toward Kyiv which is home to nearly three million people. According to Maxar Technologies satellite imagery, the convoy included tanks, armored vehicles and artillery. It was located 25 km (17 miles) away from the centre of Kyiv and covered 65km (40 miles).
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In a worrying development, Human Rights Watch has said it documented a cluster bomb attack outside a hospital in Ukraine’s east in recent days. The munitions were also used in Kharkiv as well as the Kiyanka village, which is near Chernihiv’s northern city. However, there has not been any independent confirmation.
According to the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor, he intends to launch a Ukraine investigation. He is also monitoring the situation.
A military base north of Kyiv was captured in Brovary as flames. The footage was taken from a vehicle driving by. In another video verified by AP, a passenger pleads with the driver, “Misha, we need to drive quickly as they’ll strike again.”
Ukrainian authorities also released photographs and information about the Sunday attack on Okhtyrka military base, which is located between Kyiv (Kharkiv) and Kyiv. They claimed more than 70 Ukrainian soldiers and some locals were killed. However, the exact cause of the attack was still unknown.
The Russian military’s movements have been stalled by fierce resistance on the ground and a surprising inability to dominate Ukraine’s airspace.
To stop Russian advances, Ukrainians showed great resourcefulness. Residents of Odesa built sandbags on their tractor tires to block the passageway between Mykolaiv and Odesa in south Ukraine. Sandbags were piled up in front of City Hall windows and doors in Kyiv.
In the face of that Ukrainian resistance and crippling Western sanctions, Putin has put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert—including intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers—in a stark warning to the West and a signal of his readiness to escalate the tensions to a terrifying new level. But a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had yet to see any appreciable change in Russia’s nuclear posture.
Western nations have increased weapons shipments to Ukraine to help its forces defend themselves—but have so far ruled out sending in troops.
As far-reaching Western sanctions on Russian banks and other institutions took hold, the ruble plummeted, and Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore it up, as did Putin, signing a decree restricting foreign currency.
However, this did not calm Russian concerns. Moscow was filled with people waiting to cash out their money as sanctions were threatening to increase prices and lower the living standards of millions.
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The economic sanctions, ordered by the U.S. and other allies, were just one contributor to Russia’s growing status as a pariah country.
Russian aircraft are now banned from European airspace. Russian media has been restricted in certain countries and high-tech goods cannot be exported into Russia. International sports bodies moved to exclude Russian athletes — in the latest blow Tuesday, Russians were barred from international ice skating events.
— Isachenkov and Litvinova reported from Moscow. Robert Burns, Eric Tucker and Francesca Ebel in Washington; Josef Federman, Andrew Drake and Andrew Drake respectively in Kyiv; Lorne Cooper in Brussels; as well as other AP journalists around the globe contributed to this report.