Russian troops captured Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall in a war that has sparked global outrage and driven a million civilians from their homes, ahead of ceasefire talks on Thursday.
As diplomatic and economic costs mount for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky has touted the “heroic” resistance of his own people.
He said around 9,000 Russian soldiers had been killed since the invasion began eight days ago. Announcing its own toll for the first time, Moscow said it lost 498 troops.
“We are a nation that shattered the enemy’s plans in a week,” President Zelensky said in a video posted to the Telegram messaging service.
“Plans written for years: sneaky, filled with hatred for our country, our people.”
However, after a three-day siege that left Kherson short of food and medicine, Ukrainian officials acknowledged the loss of the Black Sea city of 290,000 people.
As a huge military column was pinned down north of Ukraine’s capital Kiev, Russian troops advanced on the southern front and besieged the important port city of Mariupol east of Kherson.
The Russians “just wanted to destroy us all”, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said, accusing their forces of firing on residential buildings.
Ukrainian military authorities said residential areas and other areas of the eastern city of Kharkiv had been “shelled all night” by indiscriminate shelling, which UN prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.
Oleg Rubak’s wife, Katia, 29, was crushed in the rubble of their family home in Zhytomyr, 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Kiev, by a Russian missile strike.
“One minute I saw her come into the room, a minute later there was nothing left,” Rubak, 32, told AFP, standing near the rubble in jogging bottoms and fleece.
“I hope she is in heaven and everything is perfect for her.”
He sobbed, apologized and continued, “I want the whole world to hear my story.”
The UN says the war has displaced more than a million people, after Putin launched his offensive in a bid to demilitarize Ukraine and overthrow the Western government of Zelensky.
But the Russian president now finds himself an international pariah, with his country under sweeping sanctions that sent the ruble into another free fall in currency markets on Thursday.
The Central Bank of Russia — whose foreign exchange reserves have been frozen in the West — imposed a 30% tax on all hard currency sales, following a run on moneylenders by ordinary Russians.
Ongoing financial costs were underlined as ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s downgraded Russia’s sovereign debt to junk status.
His sporting isolation deepened when the International Paralympic Committee flip-flopped and banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in the Beijing Winter Games.
The UN General Assembly voted 141 to 5 to demand that Russia withdraw “immediately” from Ukraine. Only four countries supported Russia — Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria — while China abstained.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Western politicians of contemplating nuclear war, saying it was in their heads “that the idea of nuclear war is constantly swirling around, not in the minds of Russians “.
The invasion triggered a dramatic realignment of security policy in Europe, with NATO strengthening its eastern flank and Germany planning a sharp increase in military spending.
The German government plans to deliver another 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a source said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the human costs were already “enormous”, accusing Russia of attacking places that “are not military targets”.
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have been killed or injured,” said Blinken, who will travel to Eastern Europe next week to bolster his support for Ukraine. — and for efforts to secure a ceasefire.
Kiev is sending a delegation to Thursday’s ceasefire talks, at an undisclosed location on the Belarus-Poland border, but has warned it will not accept “ultimatums”.
A first round of talks on Monday, also in Belarus, yielded no breakthrough.
leave it all behind
Many Ukrainians have now crossed into neighboring Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, according to the rapidly rising tally by the UN refugee agency.
“We left everything there as they came and ruined our lives,” refugee Svitlana Mostepanenko told AFP in Prague.
“They even bomb civilian houses where there are children, grandchildren, children, they are now dying.”
Nathalia Lypka, a German teacher from the Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia, fled to Berlin with her 21-year-old daughter.
“My husband and my son stayed… My husband has already served in the army, and he had to return to service,” she said, before boarding a train for Stuttgart where friends are waiting for them. to welcome them.
“We thank Europe for its support.”
Putin’s long-telegraphed invasion often seemed crippled by poor logistics, tactical errors and fierce resistance from Ukraine’s underpowered and underarmed military. — and ever-growing ranks of volunteer fighters.
Dozens of images emerged of burned Russian tanks, the charred remains of transporters and disarmed Ukrainians confronting bewildered occupying forces.
US officials say the massive column of Russian military vehicles amassed north of Kiev has “stalled” due to fuel and food shortages.
Russian authorities have imposed a media blackout on what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation”.
Ekho Moskvy radio station — a symbol of the media’s newfound freedom in post-Soviet Russia — said he would stop after being taken off the air due to his coverage of the invasion.
But Russians have consistently turned out to large anti-war protests across the country, in direct challenge to Putin’s 20-year rule.
Thousands of anti-war protesters were arrested, including several dozen at rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg on Wednesday.
“I couldn’t stay at home. We have to stop this war,” student Anton Kislov, 21, told AFP.