Russian forces tighten grip on Kyiv gateway as residents describe growing perils

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force help to evacuate the elderly that fled to safety in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 8.
Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force help to evacuate the elderly that fled to safety in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 8. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

IRPIN, Ukraine — As thousands flee the besieged Kyiv suburb Irpin, allegations are emerging of Russian forces looting, hiding military equipment in residential areas, deploying snipers and cutting water and power as they seek to use the area as a potential launchpad to invade the capital.

In more than 20 interviews conducted over two days, residents who fled Irpin described a dire and volatile environment where the line between combatants and noncombatants is increasingly blurred. Their accounts were likely to be closely examined by Ukrainian officials compiling details for potential war crimes claims.

The Russians have cut off electricity, gas and water to the city, the residents claim, which could violate international humanitarian laws that ban destroying objects during wartime that are vital to the survival of civilians.

Russian military also are parking their tanks in residential areas, apparently using civilians as human shields, witnesses said.

Panicked residents of Irpin, near Kyiv, are fleeing the city across a destroyed bridge, seeking to escape relentless Russian bombardment. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Alice Li/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

While the reports cannot be independently confirmed, the testimonies of the residents fleeing Irpin are consistent in their accounts and reflect wider concerns across Ukraine that Russian forces are committing potential war crimes as civilian casualties mount.

For days now, a struggle for Irpin has been unfolding with civilians caught in the crossfire.

For Russians forces, the city on the northwest edge of Kyiv is vital for a possible push deeper into the capital in attempts to capture the seat of Ukraine’s government. In an attempt to block a possible Russian advance, Ukrainian forces blew up the bridge over the Irpin River and block a gateway to Kyiv.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Irpin residents made their way under the crumpled bridge and gingerly walked on wooden planks across the river to escape the shelling.

In Irpin, thousands of families remain, many taking shelter in bunkers. Most cannot contact family members outside because cellphone service has been cut, heightening their fears and isolation.

With the power gone, many residents are sleeping in street clothes to keep warm, said those who have left Irpin.

Andrii Kolesnyk, 45, who runs a guesthouse in Irpin, said about 15 troops entered their property on Sunday. Then they parked five military vehicles outside and stayed overnight, “using me and my guest as a [human] shield,” he said.

“They stole everything they saw,” he said. “They stole money I left to run the hotel. All the jewelry, everything. All the electronics.”

At one point, while he sheltered in the kitchen, they fired five shots through the door — one of which wounded him in the leg, he said.

“We are appalled by Russia’s brutal tactics and the rising number of innocent civilians who have been killed in Russian strikes, which have reportedly hit schools, hospitals, kindergartens, an orphanage, residential buildings, and those fleeing through humanitarian corridors,” a spokesman for the National Security Council said in an email to The Washington Post. “We will support accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions where appropriate.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about alleged Russian actions toward civilians in Irpin.

According to a Kremlin readout, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week told French President Emmanuel Macron that Russia’s forces were doing all they can “to preserve the lives of civilians” in Ukraine.

James Gow, a war crimes expert at King’s College London, said there are no well-known examples of international war crimes cases dealing with the blocking of water and electricity supplies to civilians.

“There is nothing clearly to prohibit cutting water and power” in international law, he said in an email. But under the Rome statute, which governs the International Criminal Court, it is a crime to intentionally starve civilians or “cause conditions where they can’t survive,” according to Alex Whiting, an international law expert and visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

On Tuesday, more people streamed out of Irpin.

One man in a black beanie and jacket pushed through the crowd, carrying a shoulder-fired antitank rocket across his shoulder and a sobbing toddler in his arms. Elderly residents were carried out on makeshift stretchers made of canvas, bedsheets and tarp. One man in a blue helmet carried an old woman still in her slippers.

They described a city where residential neighborhoods have been ravaged by shelling — scenes also reflected in videos posted on social media. Most Russian troops appeared to be in the northern parts of the city, but snipers and small groups of soldiers operated in different parts of the city, said residents and members of Ukrainian territorial defense units.

“They fire straight at civilian people and homes,” said Yelena Stolyar, 39, referring to the Russian forces. “They are shelling houses and killing ordinary people.”

For nearly two weeks she, her husband and two children had sheltered in their basement in a group of 12, trekking outside only to find food.

“In the center of the city, a man was walking his dog and a sniper killed him,” said Julia Soboleva, 32, who fled Tuesday with her 8-year-old son, Lev. “He left the dog alive. They killed a woman in a car yesterday. We saw the car and her body inside.”

Soboleva added that she saw a Russian armored vehicle parked at a train station near her house. “They put tanks behind the civilians,” she said.

Olena Solamatina, 34, said Russian troops moved regularly in her neighborhood of Central Park. From her window, she said she saw Russians enter buildings and houses. At night, she sometimes saw dwellings set on fire.

For the past three days, a Russian tank was parked next to her residential building, she said.

Varvara Fetisova, 14, heard constant shooting and fighting outside in her home in Stoyanka, a town next to Irpin. Her house was damaged in the fighting and her family sought shelter at a neighbor’s. Then on Monday, three Russian troops entered the house, she said.

“They tried searching for money, they broke our car [and] took our battery from our car,” she said, adding that troops “asked if we had weapons.”

“They said if we were trying to evacuate, we wouldn’t make it,” she recalled.

But the next day, they woke up and the electricity had shut off. With temperatures dipping well below freezing at night, they packed what they could and headed toward Kyiv despite the warning — leaving behind a dog and cat who went missing in the chaos.

“If we stayed there for long we would freeze and any day could get worse so we decided to leave immediately,” she said. “It was safer to take the risk to come here.”

On Tuesday, the gas was shut off for the city, said many residents interviewed by The Post.

Whiting, who has prosecuted cases of war crimes committed during the Balkans conflict, said looting “is clearly a war crime” and has been prosecuted in several cases at international courts.

The alleged shooting of civilians by Russian forces in Irpin could be more complicated to charge, he said. Bringing a war crimes charge would require proving that Russia targeted civilians either deliberately or disproportionately given the military objective.

A crowded checkpoint on the road from Irpin to Kyiv became a crucial meeting point on Tuesday. With cell networks largely down in the area, many families were unable to confirm if their relatives had made it over the bridge alive. Groups huddled together as they peered into the distance to try to catch a glimpse of their loved ones coming down the desolate road.

Mariana Bezhula, a Ukrainian lawmaker, said she was contacted by doctors at a military hospital that was now behind Russian lines. They told her there were 40 wounded civilians, as well as sick children and pregnant women.

“But the Russian side blocked the way to them,” she said, adding that she’s been unable to contact the doctors because cellphone network is shut down.

Kolesnyk’s parents were among those waiting anxiously for any sign of their son. When they saw him, they hugged him again and again.

Stolyar, too, was waiting. She and the children had fled earlier. Her parents insisted on staying behind, in part to care for their animals. She fears what will become of them if they too don’t leave.

Then she saw her husband coming toward them in the distance — a sweet relief washing over her. They wept as they embraced, then quickly departed — their hands clenched together as they walked toward Kyiv.

Parker reported from Washington. Whitney Shefte and Kostiantyn Khudov in Irpin contributed to this report.