Ukrainian soldiers in their trenches preparing to face Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers man their trenches in anticipation of a Russian assault on Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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Russia intensifies assault, warns U.S. weapons sent to Ukraine are ‘legitimate targets’

Russia intensified its invasion of Ukraine as a top Kremlin diplomat warned the U.S. that weapons it is sending to Ukraine are ‘legitimate targets.’

Russian forces kept up their bombardment of cities across Ukraine on Saturday, capturing the eastern outskirts of a key southern port and waging an increasingly violent campaign with an eye to encircling the capital even as they sought to bring a political veneer to their occupation in cities they have captured.

The moves come as the White House announced it would send an additional $200 million in arms and equipment for Ukraine. That announcement came hours Moscow signaled it could soon expand the war to embroil Kyiv’s allies, warning the U.S. that it would consider convoys carrying weapons to Ukraine to be “legitimate targets.”

While wide-scale Russian bombing campaigns intensified in cities including Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, Russian forces plan to conduct a referendum that would turn the city of Kherson — the first major city captured by Russian forces earlier this month — into a vassal breakaway republic, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

“Given zero popular support, it will be fully staged,” he wrote on Twitter, warning that it was a repeat of Russia’s playbook in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists held a referendum that led to the creation of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in eastern Ukraine.

“Severe sanctions against Russia must follow if they proceed. Kherson is & will always be Ukraine.”

Sergey Khlan, a deputy in the Kherson Regional Council, said in a post on Facebook on Saturday that Russian authorities were contacting deputies and asking for their cooperation in holding the referendum to create a putative Kherson People’s Republic.

“The creation of Kherson People’s Republic will turn our region into a hopeless hole without life and future,” Khlan wrote.

“Do not give them a single vote! Do not give them any opportunity to legitimize [the Kherson People’s Republic]… Enter the history of Ukraine not as traitors whom nobody wants, but truly as citizens whose names will be remembered by the next generations.”

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Saturday that shipments of Western weapons to Ukraine could be attacked by Russian forces, according to Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency. Western nations’ “thoughtless transfer” of portable air defense and antitank missile systems to Kyiv, Ryabkov said, demonstrated “the escalatory component of Washington’s policy.”

The White House announced Saturday it approved an additional $200 million in arms and equipment for Ukraine, on top of $350 million President Biden approved last month.

“We have warned the U.S. that the U.S.-orchestrated inundation of Ukraine with weapons from some countries is not just a dangerous move, but also an action that makes these convoys legitimate targets,” Ryabkov said. The Russian diplomat did not say whether Russian forces would target such convoys in Poland or Romania, NATO countries that border Ukraine.

The tough talk came on a day that Russian forces sustained “heavy losses in manpower and equipment” in areas northeast of Kyiv and were prevented from regaining a foothold on previously captured frontiers, according to the Ukrainian military.

Northwest of the capital, the bulk of Russian ground forces were gathered Saturday about 15 miles from the city center, according to the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense. Parts of the large Russian column north of Kyiv had dispersed, the ministry said, either in an effort to encircle the city or limit its risk of Ukrainian counterattacks.

Early in the morning, loud explosions reverberated near the capital. Rumbles — louder and closer than the booms of previous days — could be heard throughout the day and well into the night in Kyiv. They served as the calling card of the twin Russian pincers stretching toward the capital from its northeastern and northwestern flank.

Despite holding off enemy forces from the capital, Ukrainian officials admitted a bitter defeat, acknowledging that Russia had seized part of Mariupol, a strategic city in the southeastern Donetsk region that could allow it to build a land corridor from pro-Moscow enclaves in the east to Russian-annexed Crimea in the south. Russian shelling of the city hit a mosque sheltering more than 80 people, including children, and repeated efforts to evacuate 430,000 residents have failed as their convoys come under artillery fire. Dozens of buses loaded with humanitarian supplies were reported to be attempting to reach the city.

“Let’s see whether this one gets here or not,” Mariupol Deputy Mayor Serhiy Orlov said in an interview with the BBC, noting that six previous attempts to bring food, water and medicine to his beleaguered city were unsuccessful.

“The convoys were not let through,” he said. “They were bombed, the road was mined, there was shelling in the town.”

In Mykolaiv, another major Black Sea port and shipbuilding center about 300 miles west of Mariupol, Mayor Olexandr Senkevitch claimed in a video posted Saturday on Instagram that eight civilians were injured and more than 160 houses, three hospitals and 11 educational institutions were damaged overnight.

“We will definitely repair and restore everything,” he said. “We heal the wounded. And defeat these damn orcs” referring to the Ukrainian nickname for Russian forces.

With those forces assembled about 15 miles outside Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky struck a confident tone from inside the capital, where citizen militias are armed with missiles, machine guns and Molotov cocktails.

“We know 100% there will be a victory,” he said in a news conference.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Zelensky said, about 1,300 soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine had died — a fraction of the 12,000 Russians that he claimed had died. The numbers could not be independently verified.

“One in 10,” he said.

Asked if Russian troops could enter Kyiv, Zelensky said it was theoretically possible.

“If they carry out a carpet bombing and simply decide to erase the historical memory of the whole region, the history of Kyivan Rus’, the history of Europe, they will enter Kyiv,” he added. “If they destroy all of us, they will enter Kyiv. If this is the goal, they will enter and will have to live on this land alone, without us. They will not find friends among us here.

Zelensky urged Ukrainians to keep fighting.

“The resistance of the entire Ukrainian people against these invaders has already gone down in history,” Zelensky said. “But we have no right to reduce the intensity of defense. No matter how difficult it is. We have no right to reduce the energy of resistance.”

In Melitopol, 120 miles west of Mariupol hundreds gathered on the streets Saturday to demand the release of the southern city’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, whom the Ukrainian government has said was kidnapped from a government office Friday by Russian forces.

“Fedorov!” the crowd chanted. “Free the mayor!”

After accusing Russia on Saturday of “switching to a new stage of terror” in trying to “physically eliminate” elected officials, Zelensky praised the protesters for their open resistance.

“The invaders must see that they are strangers on our land, on all our land of Ukraine, and they will never be accepted,” he said in a video broadcast.

In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, Zelensky said he urged them to push for Fedorov’s release.

“The demand is simple: to release him from captivity immediately,” he said. “We expect them, the world leaders, to show how they can influence the situation. How they can do a simple thing: free one person. A person who represents the entire Melitopol community, Ukrainians who do not give up.”

Russia’s intensified assault on the cities and villages of Ukraine came as the United States continued to insist that diplomacy still had a role in the conflict.

But prospects of a resolution looked dim after Scholz and Macron unsuccessfully tried in a lengthy telephone call Saturday to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to an immediate cease-fire or diplomatic talks.

Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency also reported Saturday that Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview that Moscow and Washington were not negotiating or consulting on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in the disputed Donbas region, the self-appointed head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, issued a decree Saturday saying the borders of the state would correspond to those declared in May 2014. (Ukrainian forces had clawed back two-thirds of the Donbas before a ceasefire later in 2014.)

The move aims to formalize gains in recent days after Russian forces — backed by separatists — have advanced into government-held areas of Luhansk province. A day earlier, Pasechnik issued another decree restoring names of streets that had been changed after the Ukrainian government’s so-called de-communization drive.

Bulos reported from Kyiv and Jarvie from Atlanta.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.