Volunteers with Ukraine's military file past trenches dug to defend their positions against a Russian invasion of Kyiv.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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Huge Russian convoy advances on Kyiv, which braces for a siege

As Kyiv awaits a full Russian onslaught, an airstrike hits a central square in Ukraine’s beleaguered second-largest city, Kharkiv.

Russian forces continued to batter targets in Ukraine on Tuesday, striking the embattled nation’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and assembling a miles-long column of tanks, artillery and other military vehicles outside the capital, Kyiv, in what could be a sign of an imminent assault.

The specter of more violence and the scenes of civilians huddled in bomb shelters or pouring across Ukraine’s western borders come as Russia finds itself increasingly isolated on the world stage, with sanctions inflicting immediate damage to its economy and currency. The United Nations’ refugee agency reported that 660,000 people have fled Ukraine in the past six days — a rate that puts the situation on track to “become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century,” agency spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said in Geneva.

As Kyiv braced for a Russian onslaught, a missile slammed Tuesday morning into a central city square in Kharkiv, in front of a large, ornate government building, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said. Video of the explosion was shared widely on social media, showing cars engulfed in flames.

The Ukraine State Emergency Service said 10 people were killed and 24 wounded in the strike on Freedom Square, the site of Kharkiv’s regional government headquarters. An opera house and concert hall nearby were also hit.

The blast came after a barrage of what observers say might have been cluster bombs on a residential neighborhood Monday evening, killing at least nine civilians and wounding dozens of others in Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million in northeastern Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the attack as “state terrorism.”

Ukrainian authorities also confirmed reports that about 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a Russian attack on a military base in the town of Okhtyrka, west of Kharkiv, on Sunday.

The bombardments hint at a new, more violent phase in a Russian incursion that appeared to have partly stalled in the face of dogged resistance and possible logistical problems, such as a shortage of fuel. Civilian casualties are mounting, as are fears of increased airstrikes and suspicions that Russian President Vladimir Putin will order his troops to encircle and blockade major population centers such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, bombing or starving them into submission.

“We must accept the grim reality that Putin will continue to tighten the vise, and if you go by the sheer size and firepower of Vladimir Putin’s war machine, the odds have always been heavily against [the] Ukrainian armed forces,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday in Warsaw, adding that he remained convinced that the invasion would fail.

Talks on Monday between Ukraine and Russia failed to bring the cease-fire that Kyiv demanded. More negotiations are in the offing, but Zelensky has expressed skepticism of any breakthrough, saying he agreed to talks only to show that he was shunning no opportunity to try to restore peace.

As the invasion stretched into its sixth day, residents of Kyiv braved freezing temperatures and trudged through snow Tuesday to line up outside supermarkets, gas stations and even the small coffee kiosks that dot the sidewalks here to stock up before a Russian assault.

Throughout the capital there were signs of a city hunkering down. Makeshift checkpoints sprang up overnight in greater numbers than before. Reservists dressed in civilian clothing — some of them young men who appeared to be barely out of high school — wrapped yellow armbands around their sleeves. Wielding guns, they manned hastily assembled barriers of tires, trash bins and other detritus and stopped motorists to check their cars.

To the northwest of the city, closer to Russian positions, traffic was almost nonexistent; even the large neighborhood supermarket had no lines. Soldiers shooed away anyone approaching, warning them that Russian artillery fire had started up.

Moments later, a blast hit nearby, reverberating across the tall birch forests on the side of the highway.

Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to London, told British lawmakers that Ukrainian troops still maintained control of the western approach to Kyiv and the western part of the country, which is vital to keep the capital from being strangled by Russian forces. He said Ukraine’s military had 200 tanks and 700 trucks to help defend the country and keep supply routes open.

Military volunteers in Ukraine
Volunteers with Ukraine’s military.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

But the massive convoy of Russian armored vehicles to the north of Kyiv, which satellite images showed stretching for 40 miles, augured a major assault.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a warning, carried by the news agency Tass, that its forces would be launching “high-precision weapons” at a facility belonging to the Security Service of Ukraine and an information and psychological operations center in Kyiv, “in order to suppress information attacks against Russia.” The statement warned residents in the area to leave their homes.

“They want to break our nationhood — that’s why the capital is constantly under threat,” Zelensky said in a video address late Monday, adding that Kyiv was hit by three missile strikes Monday and that hundreds of Russian saboteurs were roaming the city.

A host of Western nations, including most recently Australia, have agreed to supply Ukraine with military aid. But they have rebuffed calls to impose a NATO-led no-fly zone over Ukraine because of the risk of starting a much larger war.

“Unfortunately the implication of that is that the U.K.” — and other nations — “would be engaged in shooting down Russian planes,” Johnson said. “It would be engaged in direct combat with Russia. That’s not something that we can do or that we’ve envisaged. ... The consequences of that would be truly very, very difficult.”

Both Kyiv and Kharkiv, as Ukraine’s two most populous cities, hold enormous symbolic significance and are therefore prime targets, said Prystaiko, the ambassador, pointing to the historical example of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia more than a century ago.

“They are using the same textbook they used from 1918 when they couldn’t take Kyiv,” Prystaiko said. “They took Kharkiv” and proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic, with Kharkiv as its capital. Then, “as soon as Kyiv fell, they moved the capital back to Kyiv. So I believe that that’s one of the scenarios [now].”

Johnson, following a meeting with the Polish premier, said that the West was prepared to intensify its sanctions on Moscow to punish it for “unfolding disaster in our European Continent.”

“I say to Vladimir Putin and his regime: There is only one way out of this morass, and that is to stop the tanks, to turn back the tanks, on their way to Kyiv — turn them round and take the path to peace,” Johnson said.

In a virtual address to a U.N. conference in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — who could not travel to Switzerland because much of European airspace has been closed to Russian planes — accused the West of overlooking alleged atrocities in eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians live. And he said Moscow was determined to stop Ukraine from acquiring nuclear weapons, although there has been no indication that Kyiv has ever expressed such an intention.

In a dramatic moment, Western diplomats stood up and left the meeting room en bloc when Lavrov began speaking.

By contrast, Zelensky received a standing ovation when he appeared by video in an address to the European Parliament early Tuesday afternoon. The day before, he had signed an application for Ukraine to join the 27-nation club, although accession is a distant prospect.

“We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe,” Zelensky said. “I believe that today we are showing everybody that is what we are. ... We have proven that, at a minimum, we are the same as you.”

Bulos reported from Kyiv, Pierson from Singapore and Chu from London.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.