Rockets rain down on residential blocks in Mariupol with residents unable to flee the city
The war in Ukraine went into its next phase as the Russian army started to advance on towns and cities across the country, ramping up shelling and targeting residential objects in particular. However, peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow are continuing by video and the Ukrainian delegates announced “significant progress” over the weekend, without giving any details.
Conflict talks between Russia and Ukraine are set to resume on March 14, negotiators and the Kremlin have said, after both sides hailed progress at earlier rounds aimed at ending more than two weeks of fighting.
Russian forces have been largely stationary for most of the last week, although the shelling of cities has increased steadily. Kharkiv on the Russian border and Mariupol in the southeast have come under particularly heavy fire, trapping residents in the cities, where the death toll has mounted dramatically and suddenly in just a matter of days.
Peace talks that have been going on in Belarusian border towns seem to come to an end last week after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Kyiv was open to declaring Ukraine a neutral country again – Ukraine was neutral until the 2014 Maidan revolution, after which it changed its constitution to make Nato membership a national aspiration – but Zelenskiy said that the government would not give up “one inch” of Ukrainian territory.
The Kremlin has been demanding that in addition to abandoning Ukraine’s Nato aspiration, Kyiv should formally recognise Crimea as Russian territory and that Donetsk and Luhansk regions are autonomous from the rest of the country.
As bne IntelliNews argued in an opinion piece on the “game of chicken” being played out, Putin has been advancing step by step to gain the security guarantees he has been demanding. The two phases of diplomacy with the US in January and then the French-led efforts in February came to nothing, after which Putin went to the military third phase with the attack on Ukraine on February 24. However, after only a few days with little actual fighting the Kremlin proposed “urgent” peace talks on February 27 that went to three rounds and apparently failed last week.
During the third phase fighting was largely limited to missile strikes against cities and military objects often hitting empty buildings or falling in open spaces like the main square of the Ukrainian town of Kherson. Casualty figures were also relatively low, with Kyiv reporting some 250 civilians killed countrywide until now.
The conflict now appears to be moving into its fourth and most violent phase yet. The death toll has spiked alarmingly and is already into the thousands of dead from just this weekend’s fighting. In Kharkiv the locals have had to open up pits for mass graves to accommodate the number of corpses. Elsewhere, social media shows relatives burying their dead in makeshift graves close to where they were killed.
Video footage coming out of the cities in the south and east of Ukraine show heavy shelling of residential districts that are being systematically destroyed. One commentator likened the destruction in the city of Kharkiv to Stalingrad and a resident of Kyiv told bne IntelliNews by phone that the skies over Kyiv’s suburbs were “black with smoke” from the munitions pounding the outskirts of the city on March 13.
Around 13,000 people were evacuated from Ukrainian cities on March 12, according to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk – almost twice the number who fled the previous day but far fewer than on the two days prior to that as humanitarian corridors agreed at Russia-Ukraine talks failed to be implemented.
Mariupol and Kharkiv shelled
Some of the worst fighting has been concentrated in the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, which have borne the brunt of the assault so far.
Rockets rained down on Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov of about half a million people, over the weekend targeting residential blocks and systematically flattening suburban areas of the city. During the two Chechen wars, rather than sending troops to try and take the city, the Russian army simply flattened it with sustained shelling and then just marched in across a sea of rubble.
Mariupol is an important port and serves the greater Donbas region that remains under rebel control, making it an important strategic target. It has been under siege since early this month and some 2,100 residents have been killed since hostilities began, the local authorities said on March 13. Several attempts to allow civilians to leave have come to nothing.
Kharkiv, Sumy and Mariupol all remained encircled under heavy Russian shelling, the authorities say. Russia claims to have taken the strategically important city of Volnovakha, to the north of the besieged port of Mariupol. The Donetsk region's governor said constant shelling was complicating bringing aid into the southern city of Mariupol.
Images taken on at the weekend by private US satellite firm Maxar showed fires burning in the western section of Mariupol and dozens of apartment buildings heavily damaged, reports Reuters.
Other cities across the country have also been attacked for the first time. Lviv in the far west of Ukraine came under rocket attack for the first time. The local authorities confirmed that 35 people died and 134 were injured after two large explosions on the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Yavoriv, a garrison city just 12 km from the Polish border, in the morning of March 13. Russian forces fired more than 30 cruise missiles at the base, which had previously housed foreign military trainers from the UK, US and other countries.
The towns of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the west have also been targeted by Russian strikes for the first time. Dnipro, a major stronghold in central-eastern Ukraine, was also hit by the first airstrikes since the start of the war.
Multiple airstrikes hit military airfields in both Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk and a jet engine factory in Lutsk. The strikes were far to the west from the main Russian offensive and close to the borders with Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia – a possible signal to Nato about Moscow’s growing impatience with the supply of weapons to Ukraine.
Battle for Kyiv
Britain's defence ministry said fighting north-west of Ukraine’s capital is escalating, with the bulk of Russian ground forces now only 25 km from the centre of Kyiv, which it has said Russia could attack within days.
Chernihiv, north-east of Kyiv, is now isolated, but the Russian military has not moved past this city, with heavy fighting reported as Ukrainians resist.
The 60-km column of armour to the north of the capital that had been reportedly bogged down, suffering from the lack of fuel and food for most of last week, is now on the move. The inability of the column to advance has been taken as evidence that the Russian army is disorganised and the invasion poorly planned.
However, as bne IntelliNews has argued, Putin was merely holding back his advance while the peace talks were ongoing, maintaining the threat of mass destruction and death to persuade Kyiv to capitulate. As those talks were fruitless, the advance on Kyiv has resumed.
“As for the capital, Russia's military could be as close as nine miles from the city centre. As well as (slowly) advancing on the northwest route into Kyiv, troops are approaching along two parallel lines east of the capital,” the consultancy Teneo reported over the weekend. “Satellite imagery suggests that the large Russian military convoy last seen northwest of Kyiv had largely dispersed and redeployed. Armoured units had spread apart through towns and forests in the area, with artillery pieces moved into potential firing positions. This operational move may be a prelude to renewed efforts to encircle Kyiv from east and west and/or to attack the city centre itself.”
Zelenskiy said that about 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed so far but that they had put 31 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) out of action – Russia’s worst military losses since WWII.
Zelenskiy urged the West to get more involved in peace negotiations and said Russian forces would face “a fight to the death” if they sought to enter the capital.
"If they decide to carpet bomb (Kyiv), and simply erase the history of this region ... and destroy all of us, then they will enter Kyiv. If that's their goal, let them come in, but they will have to live on this land by themselves," he said.
Nato weapons legitimate targets
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 10 March accused the EU and other countries of “dangerously” backing the supply of arms to Kyiv. On 11 March, Russian authorities revealed their intention to “strengthen their Western borders” due to the increased Nato presence near Russia.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said the US ran the risk of escalating tensions and widening the war thanks to the burgeoning amount of Western arms shipments to Ukraine. He went on to say that Russia’s military will consider these deliveries as "legitimate targets".
Ryabkov made no specific threat, but implied that these deliveries could be attacked before they reached Ukraine and were still in their Nato transport planes.
Fuelling the flames, the US said it would rush up to $200mn in additional small arms, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, where officials have pleaded for more military aid.
The possibility of Nato being sucked into the conflict has been a major danger. While Nato has specifically said that it would not send troops into action on Ukraine’s behalf, it has dramatically increased its supplies of arms and materiel to Ukraine, which is in effect increasingly fighting a proxy with Russia on Nato’s behalf.
In order to support the outgunned Ukrainian army Nato will probably continue to pour arms into Ukraine, but if Russia targets those deliveries there is a danger that those attacks will become a flash point that will pull Nato directly into the conflict.
Peace talks ongoing
A last chance to head off the worst of the fourth phase of the Russian attack are the peace talks that began shortly after the invasion and that are continuing by video conference between the delegates.
Encouraging statements were made by Zelenskiy’s advisor Mikhail Podolyak according to reports and were followed by Russian negotiator and head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky reporting “significant progress” in the talks with Ukraine at the weekend.
“According to my personal expectations, this progress can develop in the very next few days into a unified position of both delegations, into documents for signing,” the politician told RT, as cited by the Russian press.
Podolyak said that while the negotiations in person on the Belarus border had come to an end, talks between delegations were continuing in video format, and special working groups had been created.
However, no more details on what, if any, new concessions have been made were reported.
A parallel international effort to mediate and bring the conflict to a halt met with no success.
Zelenskiy discussed the war with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron over the weekend. The German and French leaders then spoke to Putin by phone and urged him to order an immediate ceasefire.
The Kremlin read out on the 75-minute call made no mention of a ceasefire and a French presidency official told Reuters: "We did not detect a willingness on Putin's part to end the war".
Russian forces began shelling at 5am on March 13, hitting residential areas in Kyiv. Firefighters rushed to put out fires in the nine-story apartment block on 20 Bohatyrska St in the Obolon neighbourhood of Kyiv, according to the State Emergency Service. Two people were found dead and another three were taken to hospital.