The battle for Ukraine's cities is thundering across its suburbs, with the Ukrainian military retaking a key neighborhood near Kyiv and the invading Russian forces increased air raids that have caused uncounted deaths and sent millions of people fleeing.
Ukraine's military said early Tuesday it had forced Russian troops out of a strategically important Kyiv suburb, following fierce fighting. However, Russian forces were partially able to take three northwest suburbs where there's been fighting for weeks.
The port city of Mariupol continues to suffer acutely. Civilians making the dangerous escape from the embattled southern port hub described fleeing through street-to-street gun battles and past unburied corpses as steady Russian bombardment tried to pound the city into submission. There was no immediate sign of a diplomatic breakthrough that could bring even temporary relief.
Here are some key things to know about the conflict:
WHY ARE SUBURBS TURNING INTO BATTLEFIELDS?
The suburbs could be a barrier to Ukraine's cities or a doorway for Russian troops, with the capital of Kyiv believed to be Moscow's primary military objective in Vladimir Putin's war.
Outside devastated Mariupol, the Kremlin’s ground offensive has advanced slowly, knocked back by lethal hit-and-run attacks by the Ukrainians.
The regained Kyiv suburb allowed Ukrainian forces to retake control of a key highway to the west and block Russian troops from surrounding the capital from the northwest.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces advancing toward Kyiv were able to partially take northwest suburbs of Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin, some of which had been under attack almost since Russia’s military invaded on Feb. 24.
Still, Putin’s forces are increasingly concentrating their air power and artillery on Ukraine’s cities and the civilians living there.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the military’s assessment, said Russia had increased air sorties in recent days, carrying out as many as 300 through the weekend, and has fired more than 1,100 missiles into Ukraine since the invasion began.
WHAT'S THE LATEST ON MARIUPOL?
The Russian assault has turned living in Mariupol into a fight for survival.
Electricity, water and food supplies have been cut off and communication with the outside world has been severed. It was unclear how many of the city with a prewar population of 430,000 remained. Around a quarter were believed to have fled early in the war and tens of thousands more have escaped over the past week by way of humanitarian corridors. Other attempts to leave have been thwarted by Russian efforts to pound the city into submission.
Those who have made it out of Mariupol described a devastated landscape.
“There are no buildings there anymore,” said 77-year-old Maria Fiodorova, who crossed the border to Poland on Monday after five days of travel.
Olga Nikitina, who fled Mariupol for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, said gunfire blew out her windows, and her apartment dropped below freezing.
“Battles took place over every street. Every house became a target,” she said.
Still unclear were fate of those inside an art school flattened on Sunday and a theater that was blown apart four days earlier. More than 1,300 people were believed to be sheltering in the theater, and 400 were estimated to have been in the art school.
Perched on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol has been a key target that has been relentlessly bombarded for more than three weeks and has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. The fall of the southern port city would help Russia establish a land bridge to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
WHAT HAS THE AP DIRECTLY WITNESSED OR CONFIRMED?
In the Russian-occupied southern city of Kherson on Monday, Russian forces shot into the air and fired stun grenades at protestors who were chanting “Go home!” Kherson early this month became the first major city to fall to Russia’s offensive.
In Kyiv, a shopping center in the densely populated Podil district near the city center remained a smoking ruin after being hit late Sunday by shelling that killed eight people, according to emergency officials. The attack shattered every window in a neighboring high-rise.
WHAT ABOUT DIPLOMACY?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday he was prepared to discuss a commitment from Ukraine not to seek NATO membership in exchange for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a guarantee of Ukraine’s security.
“It’s a compromise for everyone: for the West, which doesn’t know what to do with us with regard to NATO, for Ukraine, which wants security guarantees, and for Russia, which doesn’t want further NATO expansion,” Zelenskyy said.
He also repeated his call for direct talks with Putin. Unless he meets with the Russian president, it is impossible to understand whether Russia even wants to stop the war, Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy also said that Kyiv will be ready to discuss the status of Crimea and the eastern Donbas region held by Russian-backed separatists after a cease-fire and steps toward providing security guarantees.
The Kremlin is demanding Ukraine disarm and declare itself neutral.
U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Europe this week, where he will attend a summit with NATO leaders that will look for ways to strengthen the bloc’s own deterrence and defense to deal with the now openly confrontational Putin.
The Kremlin has bristled at remarks coming from the Americans. The Russian Foreign Ministry has warned that relations with the U.S. are “on the verge of a breach" and summoned the U.S. ambassador.
Biden has added a stop to Poland during his trip, visiting a crucial ally of Ukraine which has taken in more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees.
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