The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dozens wounded in shelling of Kharkiv as Russia strikes buildings with suspected cluster munitions

Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, came under heavy bombardment Feb. 28, and at least 11 people were killed and dozens hospitalized. (Video: Courtesy of Alexey Zavrazhnyi)
6 min

MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials say at least 11 people were killed and more were wounded in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Monday morning after Russia launched rocket strikes, targeting Ukraine’s second-largest city with some of the heaviest shelling since the invasion began Thursday.

Suspected cluster munitions struck buildings in residential parts of the city, raising fears that as Russia escalates attacks in urban areas it could use tactics similar to those it used in Chechnya and Syria, where it has been accused of widespread wartime abuses.

The bombardments came as Russian and Ukrainian delegations held talks Monday for the first time. They met by Ukraine’s border with Belarus, a key Russian ally.

The latest on the war in Ukraine

Oleh Synehubov, head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, said Monday that “dozens are dying” and that at least 11 people were confirmed dead. He called the attacks, in three areas of the predominantly Russian-speaking city that had been considered more friendly to Russia, “a war crime.”

“The Russian enemy is shelling entire residential areas of Kharkiv, where there is no critical infrastructure, where there are no positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine that the Russians could aim at,” he said in a message on Telegram.

As the shelling began, many Kharkiv residents were lining up at grocery stores and other shops to replenish supplies after being shut in for several days. In the aftermath, images circulated online of damaged buildings and streets dotted with blood and hastily discarded groceries. One video showed a still-smoldering children’s clothing factory entirely destroyed.

Kharkiv resident Alexey Zavrazhnyi, 32, said a rocket fell in a playground about 700 meters from his apartment. A second fell on the opposite side of the playground, damaging the area where Zavrazhnyi said he takes his 9-month-old daughter to play. Luckily no one was injured here, he said, but elsewhere in the city he saw blood on the street.

On the road from Kharkiv to Dnipro: Checkpoints, guns and a resolve to fight Russians

Mark Hiznay, associate director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post that Russian forces had used Smerch cluster munition rockets, which disperse submunitions or bomblets, according to footage he reviewed.

“This attack clearly illustrates the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions and should be unequivocally condemned,” he said.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the open-source group Bellingcat have identified the use of cluster munitions in other Russian attacks in Ukraine over recent of days in what analysts say is a worrying sign that Russia may be turning to even more-deadly military tactics.

'“As Putin’s ‘special operation’ plan to quickly demoralize the Ukrainian army and occupy large cities unopposed appears to have failed, we may see a return to area bombings, which caused so much harm to Chechen and Syrian civilians,” the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source intelligence group that monitors Russia’s military, said in a tweet Monday.

Why Kharkiv, a city known for its poets, has become a key battleground in Ukraine

In Syria, where Russia has been allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, Russian warplanes have become synonymous with the cluster bombs that have decimated Syrian cities such as Aleppo and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals. In Chechnya, Russia was similarly accused of indiscriminately targeting civilian populations, among other alleged war crimes, during the second Chechen conflict from 1999 to 2005.

Now Russia appears to be adopting siege warfare tactics against Kharkiv, firing long-range weapons into the city, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Monday.

U.S. officials assess that if Russia can take Kharkiv and also seize Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine, “that would allow them to section off the eastern part of Ukraine and fix whatever Ukrainian armed forces are in the east and keep them there,” far from the capital, Kyiv, the senior U.S. defense official said.

Siege tactics often include bombarding a target from a distance, even with civilians stuck in place, and cutting it off from food and ammunition resupply.

Ukrainian officials gave conflicting reports about the number of fatalities.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said earlier Monday that the exact number of casualties remained unknown but that at least 15 Ukrainian fighters and 16 civilians had been wounded.

Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko wrote in a Facebook post Monday that “Kharkiv has just been massively fired upon by grads,” with “dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded,” Reuters reported.

He was referring to Russian BM-21 “Grad” 122-millimeter rockets fired from truck-mounted multiple-rocket launchers. A correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographed damage to Russian military equipment, including Grad missile launchers, near Kharkiv on Friday.

Authorities issued a curfew for the city beginning Monday afternoon.

Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million people about 25 miles from the border with Russia, has emerged as a major linchpin in Russian efforts to push beyond the east and on to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

The Post verified videos posted Monday of explosions in a northeastern Kharkiv neighborhood.

In two clips that were verified, flashes of light appear in rapid succession as columns of smoke rise. A woman observing the barrage is heard crying in the background of one of the videos.

Russian bombardments of Kharkiv started to accelerate Saturday evening. After days of fighting largely around Kharkiv, Russian forces briefly took the city Sunday, but they were repelled hours later by Ukrainian fighters.

“Ukrainian forces have put up a pretty strong fight … but the worst is yet to come,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit research and analysis organization, told The Post on Sunday. “Russian forces haven’t [yet] tried to take Kharkiv, not seriously.”

He warned that after facing unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance, Russia was likely to increase its aerial campaign against Kharkiv, a densely packed city.

The senior U.S. defense official said that while Russia’s advance on Kyiv appears to still be its main effort, seizing Kharkiv remained a clear objective.

“In Ukraine right now, there is no safe place,” Boris Redin, an activist in Kharkiv, told The Post on Monday. “And Putin has to be stopped because there’ll be no safe place on the planet. But we’re standing and we’ll win.”

Berger, Cahlan and Lee reported from Washington. Khurshudyan reported from Dnipro, Ukraine. Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.