DNIPRO, Ukraine — Russia intensified strikes on cities across Ukraine on Tuesday, but the advance of foreign forces ground to a halt outside Kyiv as local troops and volunteers steeled themselves for a fierce battle for the capital.
The convoy, stretching some 40 miles, has moved little over the past day as the Russian forces have grappled with fuel and food shortages, a U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive situation. The British Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces continued to hold the cities of Kharkiv, Kherson and Mariupol, but all three “are now likely encircled by Russian forces,” with air and artillery attacks intensifying.
The United Nations has recorded the deaths of more than 130 civilians, including 13 children, since the beginning of the fighting last week, mostly because of shelling and rocket fire. The actual toll is probably far higher, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
Officials say Moscow has now pushed into Ukraine more than 80 percent of the combat power it staged within Russian border areas and in neighboring Belarus in recent months, demonstrating Putin’s determination to cripple a Western-backed government that he maintains has undermined Russian security.
Ukraine has refused to forswear its right to join the NATO military alliance, a proposition Putin has described as a red line.
The conflict has triggered successive rounds of international sanctions against Russia, including measures targeting its central bank and access to the global financial system. European nations have united in opposition to Putin’s actions, with some countries reversing long-standing policies so they can provide military support to Ukraine.
Perhaps most ominously, the invasion raised the specter of a military confrontation between NATO and Russia, a nation with a massive conventional force and nuclear arsenal. That possibility seemed unthinkable as recently as last month.
The massive, albeit apparently stalled, military column appears to aim straight for the seat of Ukraine’s government. Fierce fighting and shelling have continued in different areas across the country, with Russia appearing to embrace the use of less accurate weapons, including multiple rocket launcher systems that can be used to launch thermobaric rockets, or vacuum bombs, U.S. officials said.
In Kyiv, volunteers and soldiers have dug trenches and assembled barricades, staging antiaircraft guns and antitank rockets in the streets ahead of what promises to be a punishing urban battle. More than 600,000 people have already fled Ukraine, searching for safety in Poland and other neighboring countries, while many who remain in Kyiv have sought shelter in basements and subway stations.
The government of President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed that Ukrainians will not yield to Russian firepower, and he has called for additional Western aid. The flow of weaponry increased this week when Germany opened its stockpiles and even studiously neutral Finland agreed to chip in.
Russian and Ukrainian officials failed to make any progress in initial peace talks at the Belarusian border on Monday.
Zelensky spoke with President Biden on Tuesday hours before his State of the Union speech, which was expected to highlight his administration’s efforts to confront Russian aggression. Biden has ruled out sending U.S. forces to fight in Ukraine, but officials say military and humanitarian aid will continue.
On Tuesday, Zelensky and his chief of staff reported that a Russian airstrike apparently aimed at a TV tower had hit Babyn Yar, a vast Holocaust memorial in Kyiv that marks the site of a 1941 massacre that left tens of thousands of people dead.
At least five people were killed, officials said. Footage of the strike’s aftermath, obtained by The Washington Post, showed a chaotic scene with cars and buildings blown out and at least four bodies on fire. Firefighters rushed to extinguish the flames.
"What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?” Zelensky tweeted. “At least 5 killed. History repeating …”
Russian leaders yielded no ground on Tuesday, as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu vowed the operation would continue until the Kremlin’s aims were accomplished, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of planning to obtain nuclear weapons.
The Kremlin has denied targeting civilians and accused Ukrainian forces of using human shields.
Western officials said that particularly fierce fighting continued in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city some 25 miles from the border. A missile struck a regional government building, triggering a massive explosion. Mayor Ihor Terekhov said the city’s opera and ballet theater were also hit in Russian attacks. He also said residential neighborhoods had been shelled with what local officials suspected were cluster munitions, fanning fears that Moscow might again employ tactics like those that proved deadly for civilians in Chechnya and Syria.
Terekhov said the fighting had impeded the arrival of food and medical supplies in Kharkiv, and artillery had struck transformer stations, leaving much of the city without power. Local authorities were hanging on, he said, but were surrounded by Russian forces.
“This is very serious, and people are in a state of shock because they could have never thought this would happen," the mayor said in a phone interview.
Across the street from the Kharkiv government building, a tent used by activists with the Euromaidan movement, which advocates closer Ukrainian ties with Europe instead of Russia, was also struck by a missile and destroyed, said Boris Redin, an activist with the movement.
He said the strikes killed residents who were driving or walking nearby.
In southern Ukraine, Russia has occupied Berdyansk and taken possession of Melitopol, a city of about 150,000. Russian forces remain outside the major southern city of Mariupol, but are close enough to attack it with artillery and other long-range weapons, the U.S. defense official said.
Russian and local forces were battling over the southern city of Kherson, whose mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, warned residents in a Facebook post to stay indoors and pleaded with Russian authorities to spare their lives.
“We are NOT military! But I will keep the city and its life going as long as I can,” he wrote. “If the soldiers of the Russian Federation and their leadership hear me, I ask: leave our city, stop shelling the civilian population. You already took everything you wanted, including human lives. God be your judge.”
In Kyiv, people waited hours in line for gasoline and scoured local stores for food ahead of what they feared would be a similar assault to the one gripping Kharkiv. A children’s hospital set up makeshift wards in a basement shelter for cancer patients and premature babies.
China, which has refrained from directly condemning Putin’s operation, began a large-scale evacuation of its citizens.
Western nations have been quick to point to Russian stumbles in the invasion, highlighting what they say were failures to back up initial assaults and flawed assumptions about Ukrainian defenses. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have also noted what they say are signs that Russian soldiers, especially young conscripts, were given scant information about their mission before being sent into Ukraine to fight.
As of Tuesday morning, Russia had fired some 400 missiles at Ukraine since the invasion began, up from about 380 on Monday, the Pentagon said. Airspace over Ukraine continues to be contested, despite the massive size advantage that the Russian air force has, officials said.
Also on Tuesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally, called for Russia to bring more Russian S-400 air defenses to his country, Interfax reported. Russian forces have poured into Ukraine from Belarus, which hosted joint military exercises with Russia in the weeks before Putin’s assault.
Last month, Belarus approved a referendum abandoning the country’s status as a nonnuclear state. Lukashenko has raised the idea of moving Russian nuclear equipment into Belarus.
The newly levied economic sanctions, which targeted Putin and his top lieutenants, are already taking a withering toll on the Russian economy, sending the ruble tumbling and the government scrambling to raise interest rates. Around the world, companies have announced they will suspend business in Russia. A global movement to ban sales of Russian vodka is gaining steam.
While the sanctions have not so far targeted Russia’s oil and gas sector, the conflict is expected to disrupt supplies through Ukraine and the Black Sea. To help mitigate potential surges in energy prices, the United States and other nations will release 60 million barrels of oil from their reserves to boost global supplies, the International Energy Agency said on Tuesday, the fourth time the organization has overseen such a move since its establishment in 1974.
Ukraine’s government, meanwhile, issued war bonds as it seeks to fund its military response, raising the equivalent of $277 million, officials said.
At the United Nations, diplomats continued to debate a resolution that would call for Russia to withdraw its troops and reverse its recognition of separatist areas in eastern Ukraine. While the resolution is nonbinding, the resolution, if adopted by the General Assembly, would represent a sign of global opprobrium.
At a separate session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, dozens of U.S. and European diplomats walked out during remarks that Lavrov made by video link.
In his own video address to the council, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Ukraine operation, which he said had struck schools, hospitals, ambulances, and infrastructure that “provides millions of people across Ukraine with drinking water, gas to keep them from freezing to death, and electricity.”
“People in Ukraine and around the world are looking to us to stand up and stand together,” Blinken said. “We must not let them down.”
Ryan and Lamothe reported from Washington. Sudarsan Raghavan, Siobhán O’Grady, Whitney Shefte and Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv; David Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; Karla Adam in London; and John Hudson and Tyler Pager in Washington contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.