Russian troops pounded the vital port of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said Tuesday, an apparent effort to disrupt the supply lines and Western weapons shipments critical to Kyiv’s defense.
Ukraine’s ability to stymie a larger, better-armed Russian military has surprised many who had anticipated a much quicker conflict. With the war now in its 11th week and Kyiv bogging Russian forces down and even staging a counteroffensive, Ukraine’s foreign minister appeared to suggest the country could expand its aims beyond merely pushing Russia back to areas it or its allies held on the day of the Feb. 24 invasion.
One of the most dramatic examples of Ukraine’s ability to deny Moscow easy victories has been Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters remained holed up at a steel plant, denying Russia’s full control of the city. The regiment defending the plant said Tuesday that Russian warplanes continued pounding it.
In recent days, the United Nations and Red Cross organized a dramatic rescue of what some officials said were the last civilians trapped at the plant. But on Tuesday, two officials said about 100 were believed to still be in the complex’s underground tunnels. Others said that was impossible to confirm.
In another harrowing example of the grisly toll the war continues to take, the Ukrainians said they found the bodies of 44 civilians in the rubble of a building destroyed weeks ago in the northeastern city of Izyum.
The Ukrainian military said Russian forces fired seven missiles Monday at Ukraine’s largest port, Odesa, hitting a shopping center and a warehouse. One person was killed and five wounded, the military said.
Images overnight showed a burning building and debris — including a tennis shoe — in a heap of destruction in the city on the Black Sea. Mayor Gennady Trukhanov later visited the warehouse and said it “had nothing in common with military infrastructure or military objects.”
Ukraine alleged at least some of the munitions used dated to the Soviet era, making them unreliable in targeting. But the Center for Defense Strategies, a Ukrainian think tank tracking the war, said Moscow used some precision weapons against Odesa: Kinzhal, or “Dagger,” hypersonic air-to-surface missiles.
Ukrainian, British and U.S. officials say Russia is rapidly using up its stock of precision weapons, raising the risk of more imprecise rockets being used as the conflict grinds on.
Ever since President Vladimir Putin’s forces failed to take Kyiv early in the war, his focus shifted to the eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas — but one general has suggested Moscow’s aims also include cutting cutting Ukraine’s maritime access to both the Black and Azov seas.
That would also give it a swath of territory that would link Russia to both the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014, and Transnistria, a pro-Moscow region of Moldova.
Even if it falls short of severing Ukraine from the coast — and it appears to lack the forces to do so — continuing missile strikes on Odesa reflect the city’s strategic importance. The Russian military has repeatedly targeted its airport and claimed it destroyed several batches of Western weapons.
Odesa is also a major gateway for grain shipments, and its blockade by Russia already threatens global food supplies. Beyond that, the city is a cultural jewel, dear to Ukrainians and Russians alike, and targeting it carries symbolic significance as well.
In Mariupol, Russians also bombarded the Azovstal steel mill, the Azov regiment said, targeting the sprawling complex 34 times in the past 24 hours. Attempts to storm the plant also continued, it said.
Meanwhile, Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor, estimated on social media that at least 100 civilians are trapped in the plant. Donetsk regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said those who remain are people “that the Russians have not selected” for evacuation.
The two officials didn’t say how they knew civilians were still in the complex — a warren of tunnels and bunkers spread over 11 square kilometers (4 square miles). Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment, told The Associated Press that he could not confirm any civilians remained. Mayor Vadym Boichenko also said there was no way to know.
With Russian forces struggling to gain ground in the Donbas, military analysts suggest that hitting Odesa might serve to stoke concern about southwestern Ukraine, thus forcing Kyiv to put more forces there. That would pull them away from the eastern front as Ukraine’s military stages counteroffensives near the northeastern city of Kharkiv, aiming to push the Russians back across the border there.
Kharkiv and the surrounding area has been under sustained Russian attack since the early in the war. In recent weeks, grisly pictures testified to the horrors of those battles, with charred and mangled bodies strewn in one street.
Dozens of bodies were found in a five-story building that collapsed in March in Izyum, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Kharkiv, said Oleh Synehubov, the head of the regional administration.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, meanwhile, appeared to voice increasing confidence — and expanded goals — amid Russia’s stalled offensive.
“In the first months of the war, the victory for us looked like withdrawal of Russian forces to the positions they occupied before Feb. 24 and payment for inflicted damage,” Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Financial Times. “Now if we are strong enough on the military front and we win the battle for Donbas, which will be crucial for the following dynamics of the war, of course the victory for us in this war will be the liberation of the rest of our territories.”
That appears to indicate that Ukraine wants to try to retake Crimea as well as regions of the Donbas taken by Russia and the separatists it backs.
But the comments seemed to reflect political ambitions more than battlefield realities: Many analysts acknowledge that while Russia isn’t capable of making quick gains, the Ukrainian military isn’t strong enough to drive the Russians back.
Also Tuesday, the Ukrainian military warned that Russia could target the country’s chemical industries. It did not elaborate but Russian shelling has previously targeted oil depots and other industrial sites.
U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan measure Monday to reboot the World War II-era “lend-lease” program, which helped defeat Nazi Germany, to bolster Kyiv and its allies.
Western powers continued to rally around Ukraine’s embattled government. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where the bodies of civilians — some bound, burned or shot at close range — were found after Russian forces withdrew.
“We owe it to the victims that we don’t just commemorate them here but that we hold the perpetrators to account,” she said.