KYIV — Russian forces redoubled attacks on strategic targets across Ukraine on Sunday, with fierce fighting reported around the capital, Kyiv, amid signs that the besieged city of Mariupol was close to falling.
As the conflict moved into its second month, Russian forces have largely failed in their first aim to take the largest cities and have narrowed immediate targets to the sieges of the southern port city of Mariupol and the strategically placed city of Chernihiv in the north.
Air raid sirens rang out in Kyiv during the day, but otherwise the city remained calm, lending some credence to the Russian Defense Ministry’s recent assertion that it was turning its focus away from Kyiv to concentrate on the eastern front. Some Russian units were withdrawing to Belarus in the north to regroup and re-equip, according to the Ukrainian military, but heavy Russian artillery attacks continued around Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv.
Seven people, including two children, died in artillery fire in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, as Russian forces tried to subdue the city near Russia’s border, the Ukrainian news media reported. And missiles hit a fuel depot in Lviv in western Ukraine as Russia continued to use airstrikes to disrupt supply lines to Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine’s top military intelligence officer suggested that Russia was changing its military focus to the south and east and might be trying to divide Ukraine between occupied and nonoccupied territories.
“In fact, this is an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” said Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the intelligence division of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.
Fighting across the country showed Russian forces were working to consolidate their positions in key spots north of Kyiv and resisting Ukrainian attempts to break their grip there while focusing fully on seizing control of Mariupol. After weeks of siege in the port city, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians trapped there were facing increasingly dire conditions, without food and water, forcing people to use untreated sewage water to survive.
Western military analysts and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Russian forces have suffered heavy losses and have been thwarted in their primary objectives: to wrest control of the country’s main cities, including Kyiv. Struggling with difficulties in their supply lines, Russian forces are having to move slowly and focus on one target at a time, said Jack Watling, a research fellow and specialist in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain.
Still, Ukrainian forces, despite their successes in ambushing and stalling Russian units around the country, have not been able to reverse Russian gains in any significant way, he added.
In an interview with Russian journalists Sunday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Russian forces had entered parts of Mariupol and he had told Ukrainian soldiers still holding out there that they could abandon the city to save their own lives.
He added that the officers refused to go because they did not want to leave dead and wounded comrades and civilians behind. He made the remarks in an interview with several independent journalists that was published on the YouTube channel Zygar.
“I’ve talked to the defenders of Mariupol today. I’m in constant contact with them. Their determination, heroism, and firmness are astonishing,” Zelensky said in an earlier video address.
“If only those who have been thinking for 31 days on how to hand over dozens of jets and tanks had 1 percent of their courage,” he continued, a caustic slap at his Western allies.
Watling said he did not expect Ukrainian forces to hold Mariupol any longer than a few more days.
“They ran out of water, they ran out of food a while ago,” he said. “Exhausted troops on sewage water — you cannot fight long on that.”
He added that he expected an insurgency to continue in the city after it falls.
As the war ground on, its physical toll on Ukraine was becoming more apparent. An estimated $63 billion in Ukrainian infrastructure had been damaged or destroyed as of last Thursday, Ukraine’s parliament said in a Twitter post Sunday.
The losses include more than 4,400 residential buildings, 138 health care facilities, eight civilian airports, and 378 educational institutions. The cost was calculated by the Kyiv School of Economics.
After a month of intense fighting near Kyiv, some Russian military units were withdrawing to Belarus to regroup, traveling through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the Ukrainian military said.
“These measures are taken to rotate units that have suffered significant losses, strengthen existing groups, replenish food, fuel and ammunition and evacuate wounded and sick soldiers,” the military said in a statement.
It also said that the Russian army was using the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor for logistics. Russian troops have blockaded the town of Slavutich, which is close to the Chernobyl station, and have escalated attacks on Chernihiv in an apparent attempt to consolidate a band of control north of the capital.
Ukraine’s chief negotiator at peace talks with Russia said a new round of negotiations would take place this week, starting Monday in Turkey, a NATO member that has used President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s good relations with both Russia and Ukraine to try to mediate a solution to the conflict. But Turkish officials have conceded that any agreement between the two parties remains distant.
Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, predicted the Ukrainian army would repel Russian forces as the fighting descended into an all-out guerrilla war.
“The season of a total Ukrainian guerrilla safari will soon begin,” he said. “Then there will be one relevant scenario left for the Russians: how to survive.”
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed since the war in Ukraine began, including at least 99 children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in a report released Sunday that cautioned that the actual figures might be “considerably higher.” An additional 1,790 civilians have been wounded, including 126 children, the report added.
With many areas of Ukraine still bogged down by the conflict, many of the dead and wounded cannot be counted, the United Nations said. Left out of the UN report was Mariupol, where Russian forces hit a theater this month that hundreds of civilians were using as a bomb shelter, killing some 300 people, according to local officials.
As President Biden returned home from a visit with NATO allies in Europe and with Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Zelensky urged him and other Western leaders to give Ukraine tanks, planes, and missiles to help fend off Russian forces.
“Ukraine cannot shoot down Russian missiles with shotguns, with machine guns,” he said. “And it is impossible to break the blockade in Mariupol without a sufficient number of tanks, other armored vehicles, and, of course, aircraft.”
“Thousands of people — citizens, civilians who are dying there in the blockade — know that,” he added. “The United States knows it. All European politicians know it. We have told everyone.”
Zelensky’s remarks came as American officials scrambled Sunday to clarify that the United States does not have a policy of regime change in Russia, after Biden said at the end of a speech in Poland on Saturday that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the president had simply meant Putin could not be “empowered to wage war” against Ukraine or anywhere else.