By Jim Heintz, Yuras Karmanau, Mstyslav Chernov and Vladimir Isachenkov | Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces have seized a strategic Ukrainian seaport and besieged another as part of efforts to cut the country off from its coastline, even as Moscow said Thursday it was ready for talks to end the fighting that has sent more than 1 million people fleeing over Ukraine’s borders.
The Russian military said it had control of Kherson, and local Ukrainian officials confirmed that forces have taken over local government headquarters in the Black Sea port of 280,000, making it the first major city to fall since the invasion began a week ago.
Elsewhere, the Russians pressed their offensive on multiple fronts, though a column of tanks and other vehicles has apparently been stalled for days outside the capital of Kyiv. Heavy fighting continued Thursday on the outskirts of another strategic port city on the Azov Sea, Mariupol, plunging it into darkness, isolation and fear. Electricity and phone connections are largely down, and homes and shops are facing food and water shortages.
Without phone connections, medics didn’t know where to take the wounded.
In just seven days of fighting, more than 2% of Ukraine’s population has been forced out of the country, according to the tally the U.N. refugee agency released to The Associated Press. The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, a city of about 1.4 million people and Ukraine’s second largest. Residents desperate to escape falling shells and bombs crowded the city’s train station and pressed onto trains, not always knowing where they were headed.
At least 227 civilians have been killed and another 525 wounded in that time, according to the latest figures from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. It acknowledges that is a vast undercount, and Ukraine earlier said more than 2,000 civilians have died. That figure could not be independently verified.
As the toll of war mounted, a second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations was expected later Thursday in neighbouring Belarus — though the two sides appeared to have little common ground.
“We are ready to conduct talks, but we will continue the operation because we won’t allow Ukraine to preserve a military infrastructure that threatens Russia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, repeating an accusation Moscow has repeatedly used to justify its invasion.
Lavrov said that the West has continuously armed Ukraine, trained its troops and built up bases there to turn Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia.
The U.S. and its allies have insisted that NATO is a defensive alliance that doesn’t pose a threat to Russia. And the West fears Russia’s invasion is meant to overthrow Ukraine’s government and install a friendly government — though Lavrov said Moscow would let the Ukrainians choose what government they should have.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier raised the specter of nuclear war, putting his country’s nuclear forces on high alert, but his foreign minister shrugged off questions of whether Russia could escalate the conflict with nuclear weapons, saying such talk comes from the West.
In Kherson, the Russians took over the regional administration headquarters, Hennady Lahuta, the governor of the region, said Thursday — while adding that he and other officials were continuing to perform their duties and provide assistance to the population.
Kherson’s mayor, Igor Kolykhaev, previously said that the national flag was still flying, but that there were no Ukrainian troops in the city. Britain’s defense secretary said it was possible the Russians had taken over, though not yet verified.
The mayor said the city would maintain a strict curfew and require pedestrians to walk in groups no larger than two, obey commands to stop and not to “provoke the troops.”
“The flag flying over us is Ukrainian,” he wrote on Facebook. “And for it to stay that way, these demands must be observed.”
Earlier Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russian land forces have stalled, and Moscow is now unleashing air attacks, but that they are being parried by Ukrainian defense systems, including in Kherson.
“Kyiv withstood the night and another missile and bomb attack. Our air defenses worked,” he said. “Kherson, Izyum — all the other cities that the occupiers hit from the air did not give up anything.”
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said explosions heard overnight in the Ukrainian capital were Russian missiles being shot down by air defense systems.
From Kherson, Russian troops appeared to roll toward Mykolaiv, another major Black Sea port and shipbuilding centre to the west along the coast. The regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said that big convoys of Russian troops are advancing on the city but said that they will likely need to regroup before trying to take it over.
A group of Russian amphibious landing vessels is also heading toward the port of Odesa, farther west, the Ukrainian military said.
Moscow’s isolation deepened when most of the world lined up against it at the United Nations to demand it withdraw from Ukraine. The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible war crimes. And in a stunning reversal, the International Paralympic Committee banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Winter Paralympic Games.
Russia reported its military casualties Wednesday for the first time in the war, saying nearly 500 of its troops have been killed and almost 1,600 wounded. Ukraine did not disclose its own military losses.
Ukraine’s military general staff said in a Facebook post that Russia’s forces had suffered some 9,000 casualties in the fighting. It did not clarify if that figure included both killed and wounded soldiers.
In a video address to the nation early Thursday, Zelenskyy praised his country’s resistance.
“We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” he said. “They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment.”
He said the fighting is taking a toll on the morale of Russian soldiers, who “go into grocery stores and try to find something to eat.”
“These are not warriors of a superpower,” he said. “These are confused children who have been used.”
Meanwhile, the senior U.S. defense official said an immense Russian column of hundreds of tanks and other vehicles appeared to be stalled roughly 25 kilometres (16 miles) from Kyiv and had made no real progress in the last couple of days.
The convoy, which earlier in the week had seemed poised to launch an assault on the capital, has been plagued with fuel and food shortages, the official said.
On the far edges of Kyiv, volunteers well into their 60s manned a checkpoint to try to block the Russian advance.
“In my old age, I had to take up arms,” said Andrey Goncharuk, 68. He said the fighters needed more weapons, but “we’ll kill the enemy and take their weapons.”
Around Ukraine, others crowded into train stations, carrying children wrapped in blankets and dragging wheeled suitcases into new lives as refugees.
Among the million-plus refugees who have fled Ukraine in recent days were some 200 orphans with severe physical and mental disabilities who arrived from Kyiv by train in Hungary on Wednesday.
Some of them spent more than an hour in underground shelters during a bombing, said Larissa Leonidovna, the director of the Svyatoshinksy orphanage for boys.
Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow; Yuras Karmanau from Lviv, Ukraine; Mstyslav Chernov in Mariupol, Ukraine. Sergei Grits in Odesa, Ukraine; Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Lynn Berry, Robert Burns and Eric Tucker in Washington; Edith M. Lederer and Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations; and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.