Russian Forces Seize Kherson, the First Ukrainian City to Fall


ODESSA, Ukraine — Russian forces on Wednesday seized the first major Ukrainian city in their onslaught, the strategic port of Kherson, as they stepped up bombardment of civilian targets across the country, put other cities under siege and pushed to encircle and cut off the capital, Kyiv.

Russian troops and tanks rolled into Kherson, on the Dnieper River near the Black Sea, after days of intense fighting that left as many as 300 Ukrainian civilians and fighters dead, said the mayor and another senior Ukrainian government official who confirmed that it had fallen. “There is no Ukrainian army here,” the mayor, Igor Kolykhaev, said in an interview. “The city is surrounded.”

Other Russian columns besieged Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and the port city of Mariupol. And most ominously, a huge convoy of military vehicles stood north of Kyiv in apparent preparation for a major offensive.

The battle for control of Kherson, a shipbuilding center, left bodies strewn about the city streets, power outages, limited water and little food, Mr. Kolykhaev said. Utility workers have tried to fix damaged pipes and downed lines, he said, but have come under fire from snipers.

He said a group of about 10 armed Russian officers, including the commander of forces attacking the city, had entered the city hall and informed him that they planned to set up a military administration.

The nearly week-old Russian invasion at first drew global attention to attacks on the two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north, but it appeared to be making more progress in the south. Capturing Kherson could clear the way for Russian forces to push westward toward Odessa — a much bigger prize — as they try to seize Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast, cutting it off from world shipping.

Russian troops have gained ground near Mariupol while naval forces gathered offshore, raising fears of an amphibious assault on a city where local officials said there was no power or heat.

Mariupol lies on the Sea of Azov, a body bordered on three sides by Russia, which controls access to it. The port is part of a vital stretch of terrain Russia is apparently trying to capture, to link Russian-backed separatist enclaves in the southeast with Crimea, the southern peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. That could trap the Ukrainian troops arrayed against the breakaway region in a pincer, caught between Russian forces to the east and west.

A day after President Biden vowed in a defiant State of the Union address that the war would “leave Russia weaker and the world stronger” and that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “has no idea what’s coming,” the West further tightened the retaliatory economic squeeze that has the Russian economy reeling. U.S. and European sanctions have hit the Russian government, its ally Belarus, Russian businesses, powerful individuals and their assets abroad.

Russian artillery and rocket fire have cut off essentials like electricity, medicine, water and heat to many Ukrainian communities, and turned a growing number of offices, homes, businesses and vehicles to crumpled, burning hulks. Around the country, people are sheltering in basements and tunnels as explosions shake the ground above them. In Kyiv alone, some 15,000 people are sleeping in the subways.

“These aren’t military targets,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Wednesday. “They are places where civilians work and families live.”

Ukraine is mounting stiffer resistance than either its allies or Russia had expected, six days into a war that has already left thousands of casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. And the United States and its allies, their stance against Moscow hardening with each passing day, are funneling an array of weapons into Ukraine, in addition to punishing Russia economically.

Western officials say Mr. Putin set out to destroy Ukraine’s military, install a puppet regime in Kyiv that would never be aligned with NATO or the European Union, and perhaps absorb some territory into Russia. But he “badly miscalculated,” Mr. Biden said on Tuesday, and the crisis raises a set of harsh questions that the Russian leader may not be prepared to answer if he anticipated a quick capitulation.

Is this just the start of a long, grinding war that would be unpopular in Russia and could devastate Ukraine’s major cities? And how much physical ruin of Ukraine and financial ruin of Russia is he prepared to accept as the price of getting his way?

“We’ve hardly slept for seven nights,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said early Wednesday in a video message. But, he added, “Today you, Ukrainians, are a symbol of invincibility.”

His government said on Wednesday that Russian attacks had killed more than 2,000 civilians and an unknown number of Ukrainian troops. Russia said 498 of its troops had died, the largest military toll it has acknowledged since the 1999-2000 war in Chechnya, and it has said that Ukrainian losses were much higher. Western officials said that in fact Russia’s military was suffering hundreds of wounded or killed each day. But all such figures are unverifiable estimates.

Ukrainian civilians in several cities have built barriers they hope will stop or slow Russian columns, while videos and still images have shown others standing in front of armored vehicles or scolding Russian soldiers.

Russian forces have so far refrained from pushing into the hearts of most cities — which would risk brutal street fighting that could partly negate their technological advantages — instead massing on the outskirts and shelling from a distance.

Videos verified by The New York Times show blasted, burning apartment buildings in Borodyanka, northwest of Kyiv. Explosions struck two large buildings in Kharkiv on Wednesday, setting ablaze one that housed Kharkiv National University, a day after a strike on a government building in the city. The mayor of Mariupol said 120 civilians there had been hospitalized with war wounds.

A Pentagon official said that Russian forces were suffering logistical problems, and warned that they were likely to become less precise in targeting their missile and artillery attacks as the fighting continues. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said on Wednesday that Russia had used thermobaric weapons — also known as vacuum bombs or fuel-air explosives — that can create enormous blasts and indiscriminate destruction.

The high-caliber weapons used by Russian forces left many of the dead in Kherson unrecognizable, said Mr. Kolykhaev, the mayor, so volunteers were burying them in mass graves.

“Many of the bodies have been blown apart,” the mayor said. “If we can make a photograph it makes sense to try to identify them, but if not we put them into bags and bury them that way.”

The European Union for the first time will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons for Ukraine, rather than just leaving that to individual member nations as it has until now, said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. A French official said the bloc would establish a hub in Poland for handling aid and weapons shipments.

Ukraine appealed to the United Nations and the Red Cross to establish a humanitarian corridor to ferry medical and other supplies into cities and civilians out, but said Russian forces had rebuffed the idea.

In an emergency meeting on the crisis, the U.N. General Assembly voted 141 to 5 in favor of a resolution condemning Russia’s actions, with only Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea opposed. Thirty-five countries abstained, including China, India, Pakistan and Iran. Almost half of those abstaining were in Africa, where Russia has cultivated some strong relationships, and where the sparse supply of Covid-19 vaccines has fueled existing tensions with the United States and Europe.

The purpose of the United Nations “is to prevent war and to condemn war and to stop war,” the U.S. ambassador, Mrs. Thomas-Greenfield, told the assembly. “That is our job here today. This is the job you were sent here to do.”

The Belarusian ambassador, Valentin Rybakov, defended Russia and denounced sanctions against it as “economic and financial terrorism.”

Russian and Ukrainian officials had said diplomats from the two countries would meet Wednesday for a second round of talks on resolving the crisis, but the meeting was postponed amid a disagreement over the location.

Mr. Blinken announced “sweeping sanctions on Russia’s defense sector,” including the weapons manufacturers that make “the very systems now being used to assault Ukraine’s people.”

The United States and its allies have cut off Russian access to much banking and international commerce, blocked imports and exports, and frozen Russian assets held abroad. Mr. Biden also said Russian airlines would be banished from American airspace. The European Union and the United States both announced a fresh round of sanctions on Wednesday against Belarus, which Russia has used as a base for its drive on Kyiv.

Mr. Putin on Wednesday banned anyone in Russia from taking more than $10,000 in foreign currency out of the country. He had built up an enormous reserve of foreign cash to weather such a crisis, but American officials say the sanctions are blocking access to much of it.

After Russian stocks plummeted following the first rounds of sanctions, the government shut down the Moscow Stock Exchange on Monday, and it remained closed Tuesday and Wednesday. The ruble’s value has tumbled to record lows, despite efforts by Russia’s central bank to prop it up, and interest rates have more than doubled.

In Russian cities, thousands of people have been arrested for protesting the war, and the imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny called for more people to take to the streets to oppose a conflict “unleashed by our obviously insane czar.”

Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa, Ukraine, and Richard Pérez-Peña from Los Angeles. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Anton Troianovski from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Farnaz Fassihi from New York; Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Marc Santora from Lviv, Ukraine; and John Ismay and Michael Crowley from Washington.

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