Russia widened its military offensive in Ukraine on Friday, striking near airports in the west of the country for the first time, as observers and satellite photos indicated that its troops, long stalled in a convoy outside the capital Kyiv, were manoeuvring in an attempt to encircle the city.
But with the invasion now in its third week, the new moves on the ground pointed to Russia forces trying to regroup, bombarding new cities as they tightened their 10-day-old siege on the key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, where tens of thousands were struggling to find food.
The new airstrikes in western Ukraine were likely a message from Russia that no area was safe. Western and Ukrainian officials have said the Russian forces have struggled in the face of heavier-than-expected resistance and supply and morale problems.
So far, they have made the most advances on cities in the south and east while stalling in the north and around Kyiv.
Strikes on the western Lutsk airfield killed four Ukrainian servicemen and wounded six, according to Lutsk Mayor Ihor Polishchuk. In Ivano-Frankivsk, residents were ordered to shelters after an air raid alert, Mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv said.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons Friday to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk “out of action.” He did not provide details.
In another potentially ominous movement, new satellite photos appeared to show that the massive Russian convoy outside the Ukrainian capital had fanned out into nearby towns and forests.
Howitzers were towed into positions to open fire, and armoured units were seen in towns near the the Antonov Airport north of the city, according to Maxar Technologies, the company that produced the images.
The 64-kilometre line of vehicles, tanks and artillery had massed outside Kyiv early last week. But its advance had appeared to stall amid reports of food and fuel shortages while Ukrainian troops also targeted it with anti-tank missiles.
The new moves suggest the convoy forces were now moving west around the city, making their way south to encircle it,, according to Jack Watling, a research fellow at British defence think-tank Royal United Services Institute.
“They’re about half-way around now,” he told BBC radio. He said they were likely preparing for a “siege rather than assault” on Kyiv because of continuing low morale and logistical problems. A missile Friday hit the town of Baryshivka, on Kyiv’s eastern perimeter, significantly damaging buildings, according to the regional administration.
The British Ministry of Defence said that after making “limited progress,” Russian forces were trying to “re-set and re-posture” their troops, gearing up for operations against Kyiv.
Moscow also indicated it plans to bring fighters from Syria into the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin approved bringing in “volunteer” fighters and told his defence minister to help them “move to the combat zone.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the “volunteers” include fighters from Syria.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia knew of “more than 16,000 applications” from countries in the Middle East, many of them from people he said had helped Russia against the Islamic State group, according to a Kremlin transcript.
Since 2015, Russian forces have backed Syrian President Assad against various groups opposed to his rule, including Islamic State. Opposition activists in Syria have also reported Russian recruitment efforts in the country for the Ukraine war. But they estimate the number of volunteers so far is in the hundreds or a few thousand.
Revoking Russia’s “most favoured nation” trade status by the US and other nations would allow higher tariffs to be imposed on some Russian imports. Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow to Russia, causing the ruble to plunge, foreign businesses to flee and prices to rise sharply.
Putin has insisted Russia can endure sanctions. After meeting in Moscow with the president of Belarus, Putin said there have been “certain positive developments” in Russia-Ukraine negotiations. But he offered no details.
Meanwhile, the offensive on Ukrainian cities has expanded.
In Syria, Russia backed the government in imposing long, brutal sieges on opposition-held cities, wreaking heavy destruction on residential area and causing widespread civilian casualties. That history, along with the ongoing siege of the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, has raised fears of similar bloodshed in Ukraine.
Russian airstrikes Friday targeted for the first time the eastern city of Dnipro, a major industrial hub and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city in a strategic position on the Dnieper River. Three strikes hit, killing at least one person, according to Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Heraschenko.
In images of the strikes’ aftermath released by Ukraine’s state emergency agency, firefighters doused a flaming building and scattered ash fell on bloodied rubble. Smoke billowed over shattered concrete and collapsed sidings where buildings once stood.
The Ukrainian general staff said Friday that the attacks in the west and in Dnipro were launched because the Russians were “unable to succeed” on other fronts. It said Russian efforts Friday remain concentrated around Kyiv and Mariupol, and that Russian forces are regrouping in the north and around the eastern cities of Sumy and Kharkiv.
Temperatures sank below freezing across most of Ukraine and were forecast to hit -13 degrees Celsius (8 Fahrenheit) in Kharkiv, which has come under heavy bombardment. Some 400 apartment buildings were cut off from heating supplies, and Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov appealed to remaining residents to descend into the subway system or other underground shelters where authorities and volunteers were distributing blankets and hot food.
A deadly strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol this week sparked international outrage and charges of a possible war crime.
Mariupol residents said bombardment continued Friday. Konashenkov, the Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, said Russian-backed fighters have advanced up to 800 meters from Mariupol from the east, north and west, further squeezing the city which has the Azov Sea to its south. He said the advance was being conducted by fighters from the separatist-held Donetsk region, the standard Russian line for fighting in the east.
Ukrainian authorities are planning to send aid to Mariupol, home to some 430,000, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a video message.
Repeated previous attempts have failed as aid and rescue convoys were targeted by Russian shelling, even as residents have grown more desperate, scrounging for food and fuel.
More than 1,300 people have died in the siege, Vereshchuk said. “They want to destroy the people of Mariupol. They want to make them starve,” she added. “It’s a war crime.”
Residents have no heat or phone service. Bodies are being buried in mass graves. Grocery stores and pharmacies were emptied days ago by people breaking in to get supplies, according to a local official with the Red Cross, Sacha Volkov. A black market is operating for vegetables, meat is unavailable, Volkov said.
Residents, Volkov said, are turning on one another: “People started to attack each other for food.”
Vereshchuk also announced efforts to create new humanitarian corridors to bring aid to people in areas occupied or under Russian attack around the cities of Kherson in the south, Chernihiv in the north and Kharkiv in the east.
Some 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion began, the International Organisation for Migration said Friday.
Millions more have been driven from their homes. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said about 2 million people, half the metropolitan area’s population, have left the capital.