Moscow’s hope for a lightning assault on Ukraine’s largest cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv has been hampered by fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops, raising fears of an all-out artillery assault on the urban centres.
Ukrainian troops repelled a Russian incursion into the eastern city of Kharkiv on Sunday as Moscow’s forces continued to slowly encircle the capital Kyiv, where defending troops have retained control despite four days of attacks.
Western intelligence officials said they had been surprised by the level of resistance from Ukrainian troops, particularly in cities, and their ability to slow the Russian advance and delay Moscow’s key objectives.
The resistance in Kyiv and Kharkiv came as Russian troops instead made significant gains on the country’s southern coast, as Moscow sought to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the province of Chechnya who commands some of Russia’s most feared units, said Russia’s tactics were not working and should be intensified by using more weapons.
“They’re armed to the teeth with new weaponry and ammunition, new generation heavy artillery, and we’re still placing our hopes on the Ukrainians’ coming to their senses,” Kadyrov wrote on messaging app Telegram. “I’ve developed tactics and strategy against terrorists many times and fought in battle. In my understanding the tactics we’ve chosen in Ukraine are too sluggish.”
“We have to change . . . That’ll be more convincing for them,” Kadyrov said, calling on Russian president Vladimir Putin to “give all special forces the order to finish off the Nazis and terrorists” in Ukraine. Putin has described the leadership in Kyiv as “terrorists” and “neo-Nazis”.
A senior US defence official said Russia had deployed two-thirds of the combat forces it had amassed on the border before the invasion — an estimated total of 150,000 troops.
“Despite the shortcomings they’ve had with logistics and sustainment and in some of their manoeuvres, they still have an awful lot of combat power that is viable and arrayed in and outside Ukraine,” he added.
Russia’s focus on encircling Kyiv has raised fears of a fierce bombardment of the city and its residents as their ability to flee is curtailed. People there have sought refuge in cellars, underground garages and metro stations as they brace themselves for a full-scale assault.
“The Russian military’s default setting when they get stuck, as happened in Grozny, is to destroy, destroy, destroy,” said another western defence source, referring to the capital of Chechnya.
One of Putin’s first acts as president was to oversee a bombardment of Grozny as part of a war on Islamist separatists in early 2000 that left much of it in ruins and killed up to 8,000 civilians, before installing Kadyrov’s father as head of the republic.
Overnight on Saturday, Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city, with 1.4mn inhabitants, was subjected to “intensive exchanges of artillery”, the UK defence ministry said.
On Sunday afternoon, Kharkiv’s mayor said Ukrainian forces were back in full control of the city, after repelling a Russian incursion involving special forces and light vehicles. Citizens were warned to stay in their homes.
While the invasion has been obstructed by logistical struggles and a failure to capture and hold some strategic sites, officials cautioned that Russia’s superior military capabilities and its ability to continue to ramp up deployments would tell over time.
“The conflict began as a choice made by Putin, and the problem is that now having committed himself, it has become a war of necessity,” said a western official. “So Putin needs to win and in order to win Russia may turn to indiscriminate force . . . and I will be very concerned about what they do.”
Meanwhile, in southern Ukraine, Russia’s assault by troops assembled in Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, has seen it take control of a number of key locations, such as Melitopol close to the coast.
Russia’s blockage of port cities Berdyansk and Mariupol has in effect created a Russian-controlled land bridge from Crimea to areas of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, according to Rohan Consulting, a conflict analyst.
Separatist forces from the self-declared Russia-backed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk also claimed to have made advances west, into towns north of Mariupol, but these were unable to be independently verified.
If Russia is able to capture or blockade Odesa, a major port to the west of Crimea, it could seal off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea — the critical export route for the country’s economy.
There were also unconfirmed reports of Russian airborne troops landing in western Ukraine.
But the Russian military’s key strategic objective still appeared to be the capital.
Russia is “prioritis[ing] the encirclement and isolation of Kyiv”, the UK defence ministry said, bypassing other towns as columns of troops sent from Russia and Belarus race towards the city.
Russian troops, which have already taken control of areas north and west of the capital, were fighting for control of Vasylkiv, to Kyiv’s south-west, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Ukrainian officials said.
An oil depot there was set alight, sending flames billowing into the dawn sky, while air-raid sirens blared on Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington