KYIV, Ukraine – A day after a Russian strike was reduced to the ruins of a theater in southern Ukraine, where hundreds of people had gathered to seek refuge, rescuers began wading through the rubble – even as Russian grenades continued with falling – to pull survivors out one by one.
“Adults and children come alive from there,” Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova, reported early Thursday as rescue efforts continued at the Drama Theater in Mariupol, a southern port city besieged by Russian forces.
But the information was sparse from the desperate city, which has been directly in Moscow’s crossroads since the invasion began three weeks ago. With as many as a thousand people, many of them children, reported to have sought refuge in the theater and still not been accounted for, there were still fears that the hopes that emerged from the rescue scene on Thursday would eventually be dashed of despair.
“Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people, to our Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a public speech overnight.
The rescue effort at the theater came on a frightening background of thousands of civilian victims in large parts of Ukraine. With heavy losses on the battlefield, Russian forces have increasingly aimed bombs and missiles at cities. Unable to conquer city centers, they level them instead, and the tax on civilians worsens.
In Mariupol, people were sheltering in a theater where the word “children” was written in large letters on the sidewalk on both sides of the building, clearly visible from the air. In Chernihiv, there were people waiting in a bread queue. In Kiev it was a 16-storey apartment building pierced by a missile fragment, and in the middle of the ruins and shards of glass outside stood a man with a sweatshirt pulled over his head, who was kneeling next to a body under a bloody sheet and holding a lifeless hand for several minutes and then staggering away in grief.
When a fourth day in a row of peace talks on Thursday gave no announcements and the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, Western officials portrayed the Russian advance as deadlocked.
While Russian forces have made some progress in the south and east, one of the officials said, they have stalled outside Kiev, the capital, where they have suffered heavy losses and – perhaps most surprisingly – have failed to gain dominance in the air. . Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments.
Given all the setbacks, Western officials said they were no longer sure Russia was planning a ground attack on Kiev, a major target. “A poorly condemned attack on a city as well-prepared and well-defended as Kiev would be a very costly affair,” one said. They warned that Russia could still decide to attack the city or, if it failed, strangle it in a prolonged siege.
While cruise missiles hammered at their capital, Ukrainian fighters described several successful, albeit modest, counter-offensives against Russian forces.
East of Kiev, in the suburban city of Brovary, the offensive in the counterattack focused on artillery, according to Lieutenant Pavlo Proskochilo, the military chief of the city. He said Ukrainian artillery attacks in some places had forced the Russians to dig in and assume more of a defensive than offensive stance.
“We hit them in the teeth,” he said. “They are now waiting for reinforcements.”
It was not clear whether Ukrainian forces had actually forced the Russians to withdraw anywhere, and in remote cities, the regular boom and blow of artillery fire was constant throughout the day.
But it was not only soldiers who promised to take up the fight against the attackers.
Outside the Kiev apartment building damaged by the missile, Tetiana Vaskovska, a 58-year-old lawyer, angrily examined the wreckage of what had been her home for 25 years.
“I know how to shoot,” she said. “Give me a gun.”
In recent days, an increasingly brutal war of attrition has unfolded on the ground and in the air, with fierce fighting raging in the suburbs of Kiev and Russian warships on the Black Sea firing missiles at cities around the southern city of Odessa. Eyewitness accounts, official statements and satellite images paint a picture of large-scale destruction. More than three million people have fled the country.
On Thursday, President Biden dipped unbridled ridicule against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who ordered the invasion. One day after branding Mr Putin a war criminal, Mr Biden called him in a speech at the Capitol a “murderous dictator, a pure bully waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.” On Friday, Mr Biden will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping and plan to warn Beijing not to help Moscow, his spokeswoman said.
Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken suggested that Mr Putin “might become more desperate”, warning that Moscow might be preparing to use chemical weapons and had begun kidnapping local officials in Ukraine and replacing them with Mr Putin. Putin’s allies.
The House of Representatives voted, 424 to 8, to suspend normal trade relations with Russia, another blow to a country whose economy is already faltering under Western economic sanctions.
In recent days, Mr. Zelensky took his case directly to Western lawmakers and urged them to help Ukraine fight Russia. To the British Parliament, he recalled the Nazi terror campaign. To Congress, he talked about Pearl Harbor. On Thursday it was Germany’s turn: Mr. Speaking at the Bundestag, Zelensky offered several references to German atrocities inflicted on, among others, Ukraine and Russia during World War II, and analogies to the Berlin Wall.
“You’re like behind the wall again,” he said. “Not the Berlin Wall, but in the middle of Europe, between freedom and slavery.”
ONE British intelligence report said Russian forces have “made minimal progress on land, at sea or in the air in recent days” and that they “continue to suffer heavy losses.” U.S. estimates have put Russian military deaths at 7,000, though the number cannot be independently confirmed.
If Russia has calculated incorrectly, the costs may not be limited to Ukraine’s battlefields. On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron of France, who once famously accused NATO of “brain death”, said the war had revived it and given the military alliance “an electric shock, a wake-up call.”
But despite all their fighting, Russian forces are reported to have taken control of large parts of Ukraine, especially in the east and south. In eastern cities controlled by Russia, witnesses described desolation and ruin, as well as looting of Russian troops where tens of thousands of people had once lived.
In the eastern city of Volnovakha, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared it “liberated”, but after weeks of bombing, Moscow’s prize was a landscape of rubble and ashes.
About 200 miles north of Mariupol, the city of Izyum has been surrounded by Russian forces for two weeks.
“No water, no light, no heat, no food, no medicine, no communication. The situation is no better than Mariupol,” said Deputy Mayor Volodymyr Matsokin. wrote on Facebook. “There is no one to bury the dead. ”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kiev, Ukraine; Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine; and Eric Nagourney from New York. Mark Landler contributed reporting from London; Marc Santora from Lviv, Ukraine; and Glenn Thrush from Washington.