The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine claims it has retaken key town outside Kyiv, as defenses hold against fierce Russian onslaught

The aftermath of the airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theater, center, and the area around it in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a satellite image from March 19. (Maxar Technologies/AP)
9 min

MUKACHEVO, UKRAINE — Ukrainian forces claimed Tuesday to have retaken control of a strategically important town outside of Kyiv, a nascent sign they could be beating back Russia’s brutal, weeks-long effort to seize the capital as the Kremlin intensifies its attacks across the country.

Ukraine’s vigorous defense against Russian forces has won admiration around the globe since the war began nearly a month ago, though it is unclear how long the besieged nation can hold its own in the lopsided fight against a nuclear power intent on taking Kyiv and coastal hubs. As President Biden prepares for a solidarity-building visit to Europe this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated pleas for more Western military support and warned that Russian ambitions extend beyond conquering his country.

“Ukraine is the gateway to Europe for the Russian army — they want to break in. But barbarism must not pass,” Zelensky told Italy’s Parliament in a video address Tuesday, part of his intense lobbying to win over world leaders who support Ukraine but are reluctant to get entangled in a wider conflict with Russia.

The state of the battlefield Tuesday largely remained what it has been for weeks: The death toll climbed as artillery bombardments continued to pummel several Ukrainian cities, destroying infrastructure and terrorizing civilians. That was particularly true in the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has seen some of the worst violence since hostilities began Feb. 24. But even as the Kremlin escalated its attacks, the Ukrainian resistance appeared to hold — at least for now.

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, President Vladimir Putin’s chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, conceded that Russia has not yet met any of its military goals in Ukraine. When asked what Putin had achieved so far, Peskov replied: “Well, first of all, not yet. He hasn’t achieved yet.”

Peskov insisted that what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” was “going on strictly in accordance with the plans and the purposes that were established beforehand.” He also repeatedly refused to rule out Russia using nuclear weapons if Moscow faced what it regarded as an “existential threat.”

The claim that Makariv, about 40 miles from Kyiv, was in Ukrainian hands seemed to mark yet another setback for Russian forces, whose convoy outside of the capital has been stalled for weeks by logistical challenges and Ukrainian resistance. The Associated Press reported that control of the territory allowed Ukraine’s forces to retake a critical highway and prevent Russian troops from surrounding the capital from the northwest.

“Thanks to the heroic actions of our defenders, the state flag of Ukraine was raised over the city. … The enemy was rejected,” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry posted in a Facebook update about Makariv, home to about 10,000 people.

According to video and images published by local officials, Ukrainian police resumed patrols of the town, though the battles there came with a heavy cost. Video of the town posted by Andriy Nebytov, head of the national police in the Kyiv region, and Alexander Omelyanenko, the Makariv police chief, showed serious damage to sites including Makariv’s cultural center, police station and multiple residential buildings. A highway was marred by shell craters. The video was verified by The Washington Post.

Video posted by Ukrainian police shows Ukrainian forces in Makariv, a town near Kyiv that Ukraine said it had retaken from Russian forces. (Video: The Washington Post)

What are cluster and thermobaric ‘vacuum’ weapons, and how has Russia used them in the past?

“There are no people on the streets. Every second house is damaged or destroyed,” Nebytov said.

The Pentagon sounded slightly more upbeat than in recent days, with a senior defense official noting Ukraine had seen limited success in retaking terrain. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, the official wouldn’t comment on specific locations but said, “We’re starting to see indications” that Ukraine is “now able and willing to take back territory.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under conditions set by the Pentagon.

Russian forces have barely budged from their positions outside Kyiv, the official said, claiming that some troops have suffered from fuel problems, food shortages and even frostbite. The official said Russia has slightly less than 90 percent of the combat power it had positioned in the areas around Ukraine before the invasion began.

“We just have not seen a lot of movement on their part,” the official said. Near the southern city of Mykolaiv, the official said, there are signs that the Russians are repositioning themselves outside the city to the south after facing fierce resistance.

Officials warned, though, that the outlook in Ukraine is far from rosy.

“This war will not end easily or rapidly,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Still, he added, “Whether Russia takes a city or takes a town or takes more territory, they are never going to be able to achieve the purpose that they set out, which was to subjugate this country, to bring this country to heel, because the Ukrainian people have made very clear that they will not be subjugated no matter what it takes.

Russian forces have started shelling Mariupol from the sea, the senior Pentagon official said, an escalation of Russia’s assault on the southern port city.

There were up to seven Russian warships in the Sea of Azov, according to a count from the official, who added that the city is an “anchor” for the Russian effort to over take the region from Ukrainian forces.

A risky evacuation operation was underway in Mariupol, as residents tried to flee bombs, street fighting and a crushing siege. Entire blocks now lie in smoking ruins, and thousands of civilians are huddled in underground shelters, according to witness accounts and videos verified by The Post.

What is happening in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city under Russian siege?

Stories of civilian suffering have trickled out through fleeing residents and occasional social media posts because Mariupol is largely cut off from the world. Perhaps the clearest picture of the toll comes from harrowing reports by AP journalists, who themselves were forced to leave as Russian troops closed in.

The Mariupol City Council and a Ukrainian presidential adviser said on Telegram that buses set out Tuesday to nearby areas on the Sea of Azov to pick up residents who had fled the city.

“We definitely will not leave anyone behind and will continue the evacuation every day … until we have transported everyone out,” Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said in a video Tuesday.

Residents who reached relative safety in Zaporizhzhia last week crossed front lines in vehicles marked with white flags, describing urban fighting and devastation as Ukrainian forces appeared to lose their grip on the city.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres described the war in Ukraine as “unwinnable” Tuesday, calling for an end to the fighting and for serious negotiations at the “peace table.”

Guterres told reporters that the fighting has only become more “destructive and more unpredictable.” The Ukrainian people, he said, are “enduring a living hell — and the reverberations are being felt worldwide with skyrocketing food, energy and fertilizer prices threatening to spiral into a global hunger crisis.”

Biden, who will travel to Belgium and Poland this week, cautioned that Russia’s tactics may get even more aggressive. He warned that Putin could use biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine but did not provide evidence, and he confirmed that Russia has used hypersonic missiles — which travel faster than five times the speed of sound — in a move he suggested was to compensate for Moscow’s hampered ground campaign.

What you need to know about hypersonic missiles, which Biden says Russia used against Ukraine

Biden will land in Brussels on Wednesday night, seeking to hold together a Western alliance that is beginning to show cracks between allies who want to supply Ukraine with offensive weapons, such as fighter jets, and others who are wary of escalating the confrontation with Moscow.

The president’s decision to visit Poland reflects that country’s position at the epicenter of an intensifying refugee crisis, as about 300,000 Ukrainians have sought safety in Warsaw since the conflict began. Biden, who may visit a refugee camp while he is in Poland, is expected to promise significant U.S. help with the crisis.

The World Health Organization called on the European Union to help countries that are taking in waves of refugees from Ukraine as the border nations feel the weight of the influx.

The priority is making sure “all countries involved in the humanitarian response have the infrastructure and expertise to face this challenge, which is placing a huge strain on resources, both human and financial,” Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, said Tuesday in Moldova — a small country on Ukraine’s southern border that has received more than 360,000 refugees.

The United Nations estimates that the Russian onslaught has displaced 10 million people in Ukraine, including 3.5 million who have fled to neighboring countries. Most have left Ukraine via Poland, where officials say the exodus is stretching the capacity of reception centers and volunteers.

The U.N. human rights agency says it has documented the killing of 953 civilians and the wounding of more than 1,500 others since the invasion began, though the real figure is believed to be exponentially higher. The WHO said Tuesday that at least 62 health-care facilities have been hit by attacks that killed 15 people and injured 37.

As the war nears the one-month mark, officials are warning of spinoff dangers, such as a heightened risk of radioactive contamination and miles of Ukrainian territory now sown with explosives.

At least seven forest fires have broken out around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine’s parliament said Monday, raising fears that they could spread radiation. Ukrainian officials and firefighters could not carry out their usual functions in the area to extinguish the fires due to Russian control of the plant.

Allam and Demirjian reported from Washington. Suliman and Francis reported from London. Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw; Annabelle Timsit in London; Amy Cheng in Seoul; Stefano Pitrelli in Rome; Miriam Berger in Jerusalem; Rachel Pannett in Sydney; and Paulina Firozi, Dan Lamothe and Matt Viser in Washington contributed to this report.