LVIV, Ukraine — Russia on Friday expanded its military offensive in Ukraine, striking for the first time near airports in the country’s west, observers and satellite photos show. an attempt to surround the capital.
The United States and its allies are ready to step up their efforts to isolate and sanction Russia, stripping it of its most favored nation status. But now that the invasion is in its third week, new maneuvers on the ground show Russian forces are trying to regroup, bombarding new cities, dragging out their ten-day siege of the key port city of Mariupol, where tens of thousands of people have struggled to find food.
The new airstrikes in western Ukraine were likely a signal to Russia that no area is safe. Western and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were facing stronger resistance than expected, as well as supply and morale problems. So far, they have made the most progress in the southern and eastern cities, but have remained entangled in the north and around Kyiv.
According to the mayor of Lutsk, Igor Polishchuk, as a result of attacks on the western airfield of Lutsk, four Ukrainian servicemen were killed and six were injured. In Ivano-Frankivsk, residents were ordered to take shelter after an air raid, Mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv said.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Friday Russia used long-range precision weapons to disable military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk. He did not provide other details.
In another potentially disturbing move, new satellite photos have surfaced showing a huge Russian convoy outside the Ukrainian capital fanning out into nearby towns and forests.
According to Maxar Technologies, the company that produced the images, howitzers were positioned to open fire and armored vehicles were spotted in towns near Antonov Airport north of the city.
At the beginning of last week, a 65-kilometer column of vehicles, tanks and artillery gathered near Kiev. But his advance was stalled by reports of food and fuel shortages, and Ukrainian troops fired anti-tank missiles at him.
According to Jack Watling, a researcher at the British defense think tank Royal United Services Institute, the new movements suggest that the convoy forces are now moving west around the city, heading south to encircle it.
“They’re already halfway there,” he told BBC radio. He said the force was likely preparing to “siege, not storm” Kyiv due to ongoing logistical and morale issues. According to the regional administration, a rocket hit the city of Baryshivka in eastern Kyiv on Friday, causing extensive damage to buildings.
The British Ministry of Defense said that Russian troops, having made “limited progress”, were trying to “drop and move” their troops in preparation for an operation against Kyiv.
Moscow also announced its intention to bring militants from Syria into the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the arrival of the volunteer fighters and asked his defense minister to help them “move into the war zone.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that among the “volunteers” were militants from Syria.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu added that Russia was aware of “more than 16,000 statements” from countries in the Middle East, including many of those he said helped Russia fight the Islamic State group, according to the Kremlin’s transcript.
Since 2015, Russian forces have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against various groups opposed to his regime, including the Islamic State. Opposition activists in Syria also report Russian attempts to recruit in the country to fight in the war in Ukraine. But they estimate the number of volunteers at the moment in the hundreds or several thousand.
The withdrawal by the United States and other countries of Russia’s trade status as “most favored nation” would allow for higher tariffs on certain types of Russian imports. Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow to Russia, causing the ruble to fall, foreign companies to flee and prices to skyrocket.
Putin insisted that Russia could face sanctions. After meeting with the Belarusian president in Moscow, Putin said that there had been “some positive developments” in the Russian-Ukrainian talks. But he did not give details.
Meanwhile, the offensive against Ukrainian cities expanded.
In Syria, Russia supported the government in a protracted and brutal siege of opposition-held cities, resulting in widespread destruction in residential areas and many civilian casualties. This story, together with the ongoing siege of the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, raises fears of similar bloodshed in Ukraine.
On Friday, for the first time, Russian airstrikes hit the city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine, a major industrial hub, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city and a strategic position on the Dnieper River. According to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, at least one person died as a result of three strikes.
The Ukrainian General Staff said on Friday that the attacks in the west and in the Dnieper region were undertaken because the Russians “were unable to succeed” on other fronts. He said Russian efforts on Friday remained focused around Kyiv and Mariupol, with Russian forces regrouping in the north and around the eastern cities of Sumy and Kharkiv.
Temperatures have fallen below freezing across much of Ukraine and are expected to hit -13 degrees Celsius in Kharkiv, which has come under heavy artillery fire. About 400 apartment buildings were cut off from heating, and Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov urged the remaining residents to go down to the subway or other underground shelters, where authorities and volunteers distributed blankets and hot meals.
The deadly strike on a children’s hospital in Mariupol this week sparked international outrage and accusations of a possible war crime.
Residents of Mariupol reported that shelling continued on Friday. Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said pro-Russian fighters had approached 800 meters from Mariupol.
The Ukrainian authorities plan to send aid to Mariupol, where about 430,000 people live, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk said in a video message.
Previous repeated attempts failed as humanitarian and rescue convoys came under fire from Russia, though residents became increasingly desperate for food and fuel.
According to Vereshchuk, more than 1,300 people died during the siege. “They want to destroy Mariupol residents. They want them to starve to death, she added. This is a war crime.”
Residents have no heating or telephones. The bodies are buried in mass graves. Grocery stores and pharmacies were emptied a few days ago by people who broke in to stock up on them, according to local Red Cross spokesman Sasha Volkov. According to Volkov, there is a black market for vegetables, but no meat.
Residents, he added, attack each other: “People started attacking each other for food.”
Ms. Vereshchuk also announced efforts to create new humanitarian corridors to deliver aid to people in areas occupied or attacked by Russia, around the cities of Kherson in the south, Chernihiv in the north and Kharkiv in the east.
About 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion began, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday. Millions more have been uprooted from their homes. Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said that about two million people, half of the population of the capital region, left the capital.