Russia Ramps Up Ukraine Attacks in Effort to Seize Strategically Key Port City

Moscow launched a fresh assault on the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Thursday, a day after one of its planes bombed a maternity hospital, illustrating how Russia is ramping up a violent push to take strategic towns, at a high cost for civilians.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, on Thursday said the hospital was a legitimate target because it was held by “local radical militias,” though Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters “we don’t have clear information” about the incident.

“It’s a total lie,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said in response to Mr. Lavrov’s assertion. “Everything that was said, each word was absolutely not true.”

While Moscow has denied targeting civilians in Ukraine, a WSJ video analysis found that Russian forces bombarded homes, schools and evacuation routes – despite the absence of clear military targets in some areas – as they failed to take control of cities. Photo composite: Eve Hartley

Ukrainian authorities Thursday raised the casualty count of Wednesday’s hospital bombing to three dead and 17 wounded. Vice President Kamala Harris, during a visit to Poland on Thursday, called for a war crimes investigation, adding Russia was committing atrocities in the fighting in Ukraine.

Russia has been accused before of targeting hospitals. Physicians for Human Rights corroborated 492 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria and 847 deaths of medical personnel there between March 2011 and December 2017 that were caused by Russian and Syrian forces. Other groups, including Doctors Without Borders, had similar findings. Russia at one point called such accusations “figments of the imagination.”

For the Kremlin, Mariupol is a key objective. Capturing the strategically important port city would open a land corridor from the Russian border along Ukraine’s southern coast to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and free up Russian forces to move on Kyiv. Russia began bombarding the city on the first day of its invasion, and its ground forces have attacked from the east and west.

Ukraine’s government resumed efforts to evacuate civilians Thursday from a handful of cities where Ukrainian and Russian forces have agreed to a tentative cease-fire. While similar efforts have failed because of fighting, the Ukrainian government said that 60,000 civilians have escaped through agreed-upon corridors since the first were organized earlier this week.

Attempts to evacuate people from Mariupol on the Azov Sea have failed repeatedly. Its siege and bombardment is becoming a cautionary tale for what might happen to other Ukrainian cities as Russia presses its invasion.

The city is now surrounded by Russian troops, some of whom have reached its outskirts, according to local authorities. The Ukrainian defenses have taken severe losses, but have been able to repel the attacks, Mariupol’s Deputy Mayor Serhiy Orlov said.

Firefighters helped a woman evacuate a building damaged by shelling in Mariupol on Thursday.



Photo:

Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

A Ukrainian serviceman took a photograph Thursday of a church damaged by bombing in Mariupol.



Photo:

Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

The city is guarded by a force consisting of Ukraine’s coast and border guard as well as a local militia that was formed by volunteers in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

The militia began as a ragtag unit that was later formally admitted into the regular armed forces of Ukraine as part of the National Guard. It has since become one of the best-equipped and best-trained military units, hardened over eight years of warfare in the area that joins Ukraine-controlled territory from the Russian-occupied zone.

Oleg Zhdanov, a reserve colonel in the Ukrainian army and a military analyst, said that Mariupol’s defenders include units with ample experience fighting Russian-led troops in Ukraine’s east. He said they have inflicted heavy losses in the past two weeks on Russian attackers, who he said had been mounting costly frontal assaults.

But the daily Russian bombardment has left the city of more than 400,000 without food, clean water or electricity. Video footage of parts of Mariupol have begun to resemble cities flattened by Russia in other conflicts, such as Grozny in Chechnya and Idlib in Syria.

Andzela Timchenko, a grandmother of four small children, said by telephone Thursday that she and her family have been taking refuge in a basement of their home, melting snow for drinking water. But she said even the snow had run out, and she worried that her grandchildren may soon suffer from dehydration. She said local authorities provided small rations of Pepsi-Cola and cereals on Wednesday, as well as pellets to make fire to warm up and cook meals.

Her family had been woken up by the roar of warplanes at 3 a.m. Thursday, followed by a barrage of explosions that caused the earth to shake beneath them, she said.

Irpin residents evacuated the Kyiv suburb on Thursday as it continued to face bombardment by Russian forces.



Photo:

aris messinis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Ukrainian village of Horenka, outside the capital, was deserted on Thursday after being damaged in battle.



Photo:

sergei supinsky/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“They are bombing everything, the streets are full of dead people,” she said.

Father Serhi Gorobtsov, an orthodox priest, said the air raid Thursday was more intense than others before it. “Tall buildings are collapsing like dominoes,” Mr. Gorobtsov posted on his

Facebook

page on Thursday.

At the bombed hospital site, Mariupol’s deputy mayor said other, uncounted bodies couldn’t be recovered because of intense shelling, and that 47 were buried in a common grave on Wednesday. The hospital was the second to be hit after a major clinic with 600 beds was targeted earlier in the week. A blood bank was also bombed, Deputy Mayor Serhiy Orlov said.

Bodies were put into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol on Wednesday.



Photo:

Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Thursday denied any intentional bombing of civilian targets. His meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister

Dmytro Kuleba

in Antalya, Turkey, lasted 90 minutes. No progress was made on a cease-fire agreement, Mr. Kuleba said.

In a press conference after the meeting, Mr. Lavrov blamed biased western media for reporting the alleged atrocities and shrugged off worries about Western economic sanctions that have begun to sever Russia’s ties with the U.S. and Europe.

Russia, he said, will retool its economy to be more independent. The move, he said, was “long overdue.”

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Chernobyl

Not in operation

Controlled by

separatists

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Primary refugee crossing locations

Chernobyl

Not in operation

Controlled by

separatists

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Chernobyl

Not in operation

Controlled by

separatists

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces

Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

U.S. officials say that Moscow, having failed to swiftly take control of Ukraine after it launched its invasion two weeks ago, is likely to try advancing with increasing disregard for civilian casualties. Moscow has said its forces aren’t deliberately targeting civilians.

Western analysts say that increasing civilian casualties are inevitable as the fighting in Ukraine moves into its major cities. Ukrainian forces, unable to match the Russians in manpower or weaponry, have shown a preference to falling back to urban areas, where fierce fighting is anticipated.

Ukrainian women and children boarded a train in Medyka, Poland, on Thursday after crossing the border to escape the war back home.



Photo:

Omar Marques/Getty Images

Corrections & Amplifications
Volodymyr Zelensky

is the president of Ukraine. An earlier version of this article misspelled his name as Voldymyr Zelenksy. (Corrected on March 10)

Write to Alan Cullison at [email protected], Brett Forrest at [email protected] and Bojan Pancevski at [email protected]

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