LVIV, Ukraine – Russian forces appeared to be advancing from the northeast in their slow fight towards the Ukrainian capital, as tanks and artillery pounded places already besieged with shelling so intense that one town’s residents couldn’t couldn’t bury the growing death toll.
In past offensives in Syria and Chechnya, Russia’s strategy has been to crush armed resistance with airstrikes and sustained bombardments that level population centers. This type of assault has isolated the southern port city of Mariupol, and a similar fate could await Kiev and other parts of Ukraine if the war continues.
In Mariupol, incessant blockades in the town thwarted repeated attempts to bring in food and water and evacuate trapped civilians. On Friday, an Associated Press photographer captured the moment a tank appeared to fire directly at a building, wrapping one side in a puffy orange ball of fire.
A deadly strike against a maternity ward there this week sparked international outrage and allegations of war crimes.
The death toll in Mariupol exceeded 1,500 in 12 days of the attack, the mayor’s office said. The shelling forced crews to stop digging trenches for mass graves, so “the dead aren’t even buried”, the mayor said.
The invading Russian forces struggled far more than expected against determined Ukrainian fighters. But the stronger Russian military threatens to overwhelm Ukrainian forces, despite a steady stream of weapons and other aid from the West to Ukraine’s democratically elected, west-facing government.
The conflict has already caused 2.5 million people to flee the country.
On the ground, Kremlin forces appeared to be trying to regroup and regain momentum after encountering heavy casualties and stiff resistance over the past two weeks. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Russia was trying to reset and “reposition” its troops, preparing for operations against Kiev.
“It’s ugly already, but it’s going to get worse,” said Nick Reynolds, a war analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
In a multipronged attack on Kiev, the Russian push from the northeast appeared to be making progress, a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to give the US assessment of the fight. Combat units were moved from the rear as forces closed within 30 kilometers of the capital.
New commercial satellite images have emerged capturing artillery fire over residential areas between the Russians and the capital. Images from Maxar Technologies showed muzzle flashes and smoke from the big guns, as well as impact craters and burning houses in the town of Moschun outside Kiev, the company said.
In a devastated village east of the capital, villagers climbed over toppled walls and swinging metal strips into the remains of a pool hall, restaurant and theater freshly destroyed by Russian bombs .
Russian President Vladimir Putin “created this mess, thinking he will be in charge here,” said Ivan Merzyk, 62. When temperatures dip below freezing, villagers quickly spread plastic wrap or nailed plywood over the blown windows of their homes.
“We’re not leaving here,” Merzyk said.
On the economic and political front, the United States and its allies decided to isolate and further sanction the Kremlin. President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will drastically reduce its trading status with Russia and ban imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds.
The decision to revoke Russia’s most favored nation status was taken in coordination with the European Union and the Group of Seven countries.
“The free world is coming together to take on Putin,” Biden said.
As the invasion entered its 16th day, Putin said there had been “some positive developments” in the ongoing talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, but he gave no details.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on video to encourage his people to keep fighting.
“It is impossible to say how many more days we will need to liberate our land, but it is possible to say that we will,” he said via video from Kyiv.
Zelenskyy said authorities were working to create 12 humanitarian corridors and trying to ensure food, medicine and other basics reached people across the country. Thousands of soldiers on both sides were reportedly killed during the invasion, along with many Ukrainian civilians.
He also accused Russia of kidnapping the mayor of a city, Melitopol, calling the kidnapping “a new stage of terror”. The Biden administration had warned before the invasion of Russian plans to detain and kill targeted people in Ukraine. Zelenskyy himself is likely a priority target.
At least until recently, the Russians have made the greatest advances on eastern and southern cities while struggling in the north and around Kiev.
Russia said on Friday it used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the west “out of service”. The Lutsk attack killed four Ukrainian servicemen, the mayor said.
Russian airstrikes also first targeted Dnipro, a major industrial hub in the east and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, with around 1 million people. One person was killed, Ukrainian officials said.
In footage of the aftermath released by Ukraine’s emergency agency, firefighters extinguished a burning building and ash fell on bloody rubble. Smoke billowed from the broken concrete where the buildings once stood.
US defense officials said Russian pilots flew an average of 200 sorties a day, compared to 5-10 for Ukrainian forces, which focus more on surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and drones to eliminate Russian planes.
The United States also said Russia launched nearly 810 missiles at Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the United Nations political chief said the international organization had received credible reports that Russian forces were using cluster bombs in populated areas. The bombs scatter smaller explosives over a wide area and are banned in cities and towns under international law.
Associated Press reporters Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, Ukraine, and other reporters around the world contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine