Russian strikes hit western Ukraine as offensive widens

By YURAS KARMANAU Associated Press
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Friday expanded its military offensive in Ukraine, striking for the first time near airports in the west of the country, as observers and satellite photos said its troops, long stuck in a convoy outside the capital Kiev, were maneuvering in an attempt to encircle the city.
The United States and its allies have prepared to step up their efforts to isolate and sanction Russia by revoking its most favored trading status. But with the invasion now in its third week, new measurements on the ground showed Russian forces trying to regroup, bombarding new towns as they tightened their 10-day siege on the key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. , where tens of thousands struggled to find food.
The new airstrikes in western Ukraine were likely a message from Russia that no area was safe. Western and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces struggled in the face of stronger-than-expected resistance and problems with supplies and morale. So far, they have made the most advances on southern and eastern cities while stalling in the north and around Kyiv.
Strikes on Lutsk’s western airfield killed four Ukrainian servicemen and injured six, according to Lutsk Mayor Ihor Polishchuk. In Ivano-Frankivsk, residents were ordered to take shelter after an air raid, Mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv said.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons on Friday to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk “out of service”. He did not provide details.
In another potentially worrying move, new satellite photos appeared to show the huge Russian convoy outside the Ukrainian capital had fanned out into nearby towns and forests.
Howitzers were towed into positions to open fire, and armored units were seen in towns near Antonov Airport north of the city, according to Maxar Technologies, the company that produced the images.
The 40-mile (64 kilometer) line of vehicles, tanks and artillery massed outside Kiev early last week. But his advance had appeared to stall amid reports of food and fuel shortages, while Ukrainian troops also targeted him with anti-tank missiles.
The new movements suggest convoy forces were now moving west around the city, heading south to encircle it, according to Jack Watling, a researcher at the British defense think tank Royal United Services Institute.
“They’re about halfway there now,” he told BBC radio. He said they were likely preparing for a “siege rather than an assault” on Kiev due to persistent low morale and logistical problems. A missile hit the town of Baryshivka on the eastern perimeter of Kiev on Friday, causing considerable damage to buildings, according to the regional administration.
The UK Ministry of Defense said that after making “limited progress”, Russian forces were trying to “reset and reposition” their troops, preparing for operations against Kiev.
Moscow has also indicated its intention to bring fighters from Syria into the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved the arrival of “volunteer” fighters and asked his defense minister to help them “move to the combat zone”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the “volunteers” included fighters from Syria.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was aware of “more than 16,000 applications” from Middle Eastern countries, including many who he said helped Russia against the Islamic State group, according to a Kremlin transcript.
Since 2015, Russian forces have supported Syrian President Assad against various groups opposed to his regime, including the Islamic State. Opposition activists in Syria have also reported Russian recruitment efforts in the country for the war in Ukraine. But they estimate the number of volunteers so far to be in the hundreds or a few thousand.
Revoking Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status by the United States and others would allow higher tariffs to be imposed on some Russian imports. Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow to Russia, causing the ruble to fall, foreign companies to flee and prices to rise sharply.
Putin insisted that Russia could bear sanctions. After meeting the Belarusian president in Moscow, Putin said there had been “some positive developments” in the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations. But he gave no details.
Meanwhile, the offensive on Ukrainian cities has expanded.
In Syria, Russia backed the government by imposing brutal long sieges on opposition-held towns, causing heavy destruction in residential areas and causing many civilian casualties. This story, along with the ongoing siege of the port of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov, has raised fears of similar bloodshed in Ukraine.
Russian airstrikes targeted the eastern city of Dnipro for the first time on Friday, a major industrial hub and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city in a strategic position on the Dnieper River. Three strikes struck, killing at least one person, according to Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Heraschenko.
In footage of the aftermath of the strikes released by Ukraine’s state emergency agency, firefighters extinguished a burning building and scattered ash fell on bloody rubble. Smoke billowed over the broken concrete and collapsed facings where the buildings once stood.
Ukraine’s general staff said on Friday that the attacks in the west and at Dnipro were launched because the Russians were “unable to succeed” on other fronts. He said Russian efforts on Friday remained concentrated around Kyiv and Mariupol, and Russian forces were regrouping in the north and around the eastern cities of Sumy and Kharkiv.
Temperatures have dropped below zero across most of Ukraine and are expected to hit -13 degrees Celsius (8 Fahrenheit) in Kharkiv, which has come under heavy shelling. Some 400 apartment buildings were cut off from heating and Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov called on the remaining residents to descend to the metro or other underground shelters where authorities and volunteers were handing out blankets and hot food .
A deadly strike against a maternity hospital in Mariupol this week has sparked international outrage and accusations of a possible war crime.
Residents of Mariupol said the shelling continued on Friday. Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said Russian-backed fighters had advanced as far as 800 meters from Mariupol from the east, north and west, further squeezing the city which has the Azov Sea to the south. He said the advance was led by fighters from the separatist-held Donetsk region, the standard Russian line for fighting in the east.
Ukrainian authorities plan to send aid to Mariupol, where some 430,000 people live, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a video message.
Repeated previous attempts failed as aid and rescue convoys were targeted by Russian shelling, even as residents grew more desperate in search of food and fuel.
More than 1,300 people died in the siege, Vereshchuk said. “They want to destroy the people of Mariupol. They want to starve them to death,” she added. “It’s a war crime.
Residents have no heating or telephones. The bodies are buried in mass graves. Grocery stores and pharmacies were emptied days ago by people who broke in to stock up, according to local Red Cross official Sacha Volkov. A black market operates for vegetables, meat is not available, Volkov said.
The locals, Volkov said, are turning on each other: “People started attacking each other for food.”
Vereshchuk also announced efforts to create new humanitarian corridors to bring aid to people in areas occupied or under Russian attack around the cities of Kherson in the south, Chernihiv in the north and Kharkiv in the east.
Some 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the invasion, the International Organization for Migration announced on Friday. Millions more have been driven from their homes. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said around 2 million people, half the metropolitan region’s population, have left the capital.
Associated Press reporters Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, Ukraine, as well as other reporters from around the world contributed.
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