Fears Putin is turning to ‘indiscriminate’ attacks as missiles bombard Kharkiv and Kyiv

Intelligence officials warn of mass civilian casualties as Ukraine sees deadliest day of war so far

Kim Sengupta
in Kyiv
Monday 28 February 2022 23:52 GMT
Huge explosion in Kyiv shortly after Ukraine-Russia negotiations end

Ceasefire talks between Russia and Ukraine took place on the worst day of bloodshed so far since the invasion began, with dozens killed in attacks on the city of Kharkiv, and more heavy missile attacks on Kyiv, in which a major military radar complex was destroyed.

The bombardment of the capital came after warnings of intense rocket and artillery barrages led to another exodus of residents. Ukrainian commanders said they expected Russian troops to once again try to push through towards the city centre, after previous attempts were repulsed.

Western allies fear that the increasing use of rockets and tube artillery marks a shift in tactics, and will be stepped up in the coming days.

“I fear that the way in which Russia has been frustrated in achieving its aims on the ground is leading to more indiscriminate fire, and as a consequence we are going to see more civilian casualties,” said one official.

The violence, and the negotiations, took place on a day that saw increased sanctions by the international community further hammering the Russian economy, leading to interest rates being doubled to 20 per cent, while at one point the rouble sank by 30 per cent. Moscow’s stock exchange was shut down and will remain closed on Tuesday.

Talks between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations at the Belarusian border ended in the early evening, with both sides returning to report to their respective governments. A second round is due to take place in the coming days, but expectations of a resolution of the conflict remain low. Kyiv has asked for a ceasefire along with the withdrawal of Russian troops. The Kremlin has not announced its position, but Vladimir Putin had previously demanded the full “demilitarisation” of Ukraine.

As the talks were taking place, the French government said Mr Putin had told Emmanuel Macron he was prepared to suspend operations that targeted infrastructure and could lead to civilian casualties.

But the assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, was said to have included the use of a BM-21 122mm Grad rocket launcher, which The Independent reported at the weekend was among weapons being moved towards Ukrainian cities by Russian forces. The arsenal also included TOS-1A thermobaric launchers along with BM-21 220mm Uragan and 300mm Smerch systems. All are area-denial systems, which are used not for precision strikes but for clearing stretches of ground.

Senior western officials confirmed on Monday that the thermobaric rocket launchers had been seen near major cities, and warned that the Kremlin may want to revert to the Soviet doctrine of overwhelming force, with the probability of massive civilian casualties, if the lack of success they have so far experienced continues.

Oksana Markarova – the Ukrainian ambassador to the US – claimed on Monday that Russia had used a thermobaric weapon as part of its assault on the country.

The officials said that western states were keeping a close watch on the actions of the Russian military for any human rights abuses, and that those responsible, including individual commanders on the ground, would be held to account before international courts of law in the future.

The Russian military went into Kharkiv on Sunday, mainly using armoured personnel carriers rather than tanks, along with comparatively light weaponry, and were driven out by Ukrainian forces after intense firefights. On Monday they resumed the assault with heavier weapons, using, it has been claimed, cluster ammunition.

A school was destroyed in Okhtyrka, killing three people including a child. Amnesty International said the attack “appears to have been carried out by Russian forces, which were operating nearby, and which have a record of using cluster munitions in populated areas”.

The organisation’s secretary general, Agnes Callamard, stated that “there is no possible justification for dropping cluster munitions in populated areas, let alone near a school”.

American and British officials said there was further evidence of Russian armour advancing to surround Kyiv. One set of satellite images showed armour formations at Antonov airport on the outskirts of the city.

Western intelligence sources have told The Independent that two Russian armies – the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) and the 1st Guards Tank Army – are heading towards Kyiv as part of an encirclement operation from three sides, with a fourth being considered.

The threats of further attacks have led to more people leaving the capital. In Yaroslaviv Val Street in the city centre, the Bondarenko family were saying goodbye to each other. Two sons, Nicolai and Valentin, were staying behind to fight with the newly mobilised volunteer force, while their mother and three siblings were leaving for Lviv in the west of the country.

Their mother, Ludmilla Bondarenko, said: “My heart breaks to leave my sons, but they want to stay and defend our city. I hope God will keep them safe and we can return here again soon. I also hope God punishes Putin for the terrible things he is doing, and that those Russians who support him are also punished.”

Washington imposed severe new sanctions on Monday, blocking American institutions from transactions involving Russia’s central bank, finance ministry and national wealth fund.

Switzerland has set aside its historic neutrality and announced that it would adopt all sanctions already imposed on Russia by the European Union.

The EU has also barred all Russian planes from using its airspace, forcing Aeroflot to cancel its flights to Europe until further notice.

“The economic reality has considerably changed,” acknowledged Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. “These are heavy sanctions, they are problematic, but Russia has the potential to offset the harm. Russia has been making plans for quite a long time.”

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