Russia’s airplanes and artillery widened their assault on Ukraine on Friday, striking airfields in the west and a major industrial hub in the east, as Moscow’s forces tried to regroup from recent losses and their onslaught fast reduced crowded cities to rubble.
American intelligence officials offered an assessment of the Russian air campaign, estimating that invading pilots are averaging 200 sorties a day, compared with five to 10 for Ukrainian forces, which are focusing more on surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and drones to take out Russian aircraft.
New commercial satellite images appeared to capture artillery firing on residential areas between Russian forces and the capital of Kyiv. The images from Maxar Technologies showed muzzle flashes and smoke from the big guns, as well as impact craters and burning homes in the town of Moschun, outside Kyiv, the company said.
In a devastated village east of the capital, villagers climbed over toppled walls and flapping metal strips in the remnants of a pool hall, restaurant and theater freshly blown apart by Russian bombs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “created this mess, thinking he will be in charge here,” 62-year-old Ivan Merzyk said. In temperatures sinking below freezing, villagers quickly spread plastic wrap or nailed plywood over blown out windows of their homes.
“We are not going away from here,” Merzyk said.
On the economic and political front, the U.S. and its allies moved to further isolate and sanction the Kremlin. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. will dramatically downgrade its trade status with Russia and also ban imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds.
The move to revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” status was taken in coordination with the European Union and Group of Seven countries.
“The free world is coming together to confront Putin,” Biden said.
On the ground, the Kremlin’s forces appeared to be trying to regroup and regain momentum after encountering heavier losses and stiffer resistance than anticipated over the past two weeks.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Russia is trying to “re-set and re-posture” its troops, gearing up for operations against Kyiv.
“It’s ugly already, but it’s going to get worse,” said Nick Reynolds, a warfare analyst at Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
With the invasion in its 16th day, Putin said there had been “certain positive developments” in Russia-Ukraine talks, but gave no details.
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had “reached a strategic turning point,” though he did not elaborate.
“It’s impossible to say how many days we will still need to free our land, but it is possible to say that we will do it,” he said via video from Kyiv.
Zelenskyy said authorities were working on establishing 12 humanitarian corridors and trying to ensure food, medicine and other basics get to people across the country. Thousands of soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed in the invasion, along with Ukrainian civilians.
He accused Russia of kidnapping the mayor of one city, Melitopol, calling the abduction “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 a likely top target.
So far, the Russians have made the biggest advances on cities in the east and south while struggling in the north and around Kyiv.
Russia said it used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the west “out of action.” The attack on Lutsk killed four Ukrainian servicemen, the mayor said.
Russian airstrikes also targeted for the first time Dnipro, a major industrial hub in the east and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, with about 1 million people. One person was killed, Ukrainian officials said.
In images of the aftermath released by Ukraine’s emergency agency, firefighters doused a flaming building, and ash fell on bloodied rubble. Smoke billowed over shattered concrete where buildings once stood.
The bombardment continued in Mariupol, where a deadly strike on a maternity hospital this week sparked international outrage and war-crime allegations.
Unrelenting attacks have thwarted repeated attempts to send in food and medicine and evacuate civilians from Mariupol, a city of 430,000. In a statement, the Mariupol mayor’s office said Friday that the toll of people killed during the now 12-day siege had risen to 1,582.
In the face of the unrelenting bombing, “the dead aren’t even being buried,” the mayor’s office said.
Elsewhere, temperatures were forecast to hit -13 degrees Celsius (8 Fahrenheit) in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has come under heavy bombardment.
About 400 apartment buildings in Kharkiv lost heat, and Mayor Ihor Terekhov appealed to remaining residents to descend into the subway or other underground shelters where blankets and hot food were being distributed.
The latest assaults came a day after satellite photos appeared to show that the huge armored column that was stalled for over a week outside Kyiv had spread out near the capital.
Military analysts were divided over whether the maneuvering by the Russian convoy signaled the imminent start of a siege of Kyiv or was just an effort to disperse some vehicles to more protected positions. The photos showed howitzers newly set up in firing position, and armored units staged near the Antonov Airport north of the city, according to Maxar.
The 40-mile (about 65-kilometer) line of tanks and other vehicles had massed outside Kyiv early last week. Its advance appeared to stop amid reports of food and fuel shortages, muddy roads and attacks by Ukrainian troops with anti-tank missiles.
Mathieu Boulegue, a researcher at the London think tank Chatham House, said the redeployment means the battle for Kyiv is just hours or days away. He predicted a drawn-out siege.
“This is going to be a very long battle of attrition. This is going to be an atrociously casualty-heavy battle and a siege, the likes of which we have rarely seen in modern history,” Boulegue said.
U.S. officials saw the breakup of the convoy headed toward Kyiv as less significant. A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the American military assessment, said that the convoy had not made any substantial progress toward the city and that the vehicles’ moves were not part of a tactical effort to advance on Kyiv.
Americans point instead to other forces that are moving toward Kyiv from the northeast and are now about 20 to 30 kilometers (about 10 to 20 miles) east of the city center.
The U.S. also says Russia has launched nearly 810 missiles into 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 prohibited in cities and towns under international law.
Russians and Ukrainians have held multiple rounds of talks near the Belarus border, and the two countries’ foreign ministers met again Thursday with no apparent progress. Various third countries have also made attempts to broker a stop to the fighting.
Some 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion began, according to the United Nations.