Kremlin Vows Victory in Ukraine as Refugees Swell to One Million

Kremlin Vows Victory in Ukraine as Refugees Swell to One Million

ODESSA, Ukraine — Russian forces advanced deeper into southern Ukraine on Thursday, appearing intent on seizing the country’s entire Black Sea coast, as the number of people fleeing Ukraine reached one million just a week into Russia’s invasion and bombardment of cities and towns.

Defiant Ukrainians, bolstered by a huge influx of weapons from NATO countries, have put up surprisingly effective resistance, while Moscow’s forces have run into a host of logistical problems, according to Western military and intelligence assessments.

But the Russians, with numerical and technological superiority, have been slowed, not stopped, and the Kremlin insisted in a statement that the war was “going according to plan.”

Russian forces surging out of Crimea cut off Mariupol, a port city to the east, while to the west, where they seized the city of Kherson on Wednesday, they advanced on the port of Mikolaiv, leaving them just 60 miles from Odessa, a vital shipping center and the largest city in the south.

In a second round of talks held in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine agreed to establish “humanitarian corridors,” with possible cease-fires in them, for civilians to evacuate the most dangerous areas, and to allow food and medicine to reach those places. But there was no sign of progress on resolving the overall conflict.

For eight years, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has been building what amounts to a massive military staging area in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula he invaded and annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and forces stationed there appeared well equipped to charge out of their bases and seize swaths of southern Ukrainian territory the moment the order came.

Russia’s near-monopoly on naval power in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov should have provided additional firepower to assist ground troops. Instead, their advance has been sluggish, hampered by operational breakdowns and a seeming inability of commanders to coordinate disparate military forces, which if combined effectively should have easily overwhelmed Ukraine’s defenses.

In the north, an enormous Russian military convoy has stalled for three days near the capital, Kyiv — for reasons not entirely clear — and while Russian forces have extensively shelled large cities like Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Kyiv, causing civilian casualties, none have fallen to Moscow’s control.

“I thought along the Black Sea coast was where they would have their best success immediately because of the huge advantage of having this bridgehead in Crimea,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “The fact that here we are on day eight, that they still haven’t captured Mariupol, has got to be frustrating for the Russians.”

Russians have seized a coastal corridor along the Sea of Azov, linking their forces in Crimea to those in southeastern Ukraine. In that stretch, only Mariupol held out on Thursday, despite a massive Russian bombardment that had cut power, water and heat to the city. The mayor, Vadym Boichenko, painted a grim picture of the siege of a city blockaded by land and sea.

“Mariupol is still being shelled, the women, kids and elderly people are suffering,” he said in a statement on Facebook. “Those hypocrites came here ‘to save’ Russian-speaking people,” he added, “but in reality they are conducting genocide of our people.”

Mr. Putin, acknowledging Russia’s war casualties for the first time, said Thursday that he would pay the equivalent of almost $50,000 to the family of each Russian soldier killed.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that 9,000 Russian troops had been killed, in addition to thousands of Ukrainian casualties, civilian and military — a day after Moscow said it had lost fewer than 500 troops.

Such figures could not be verified, but even by the Russian count, it is already the bloodiest conflict for Russia’s military since the 1999-2000 Chechen war.

Nonetheless the Kremlin, in a statement, said that its aims of ensuring a “demilitarized” and neutral Ukraine “will be achieved no matter what.”

Unshaven and haggard, Mr. Zelensky, who has emerged as an anti-Kremlin hero in the West for defying Mr. Putin and remaining in Kyiv, held his first news conference since the invasion, in a room lined with sandbags in case of shelling. He expressed willingness to compromise but did not specify on what issues, and held out little hope of reaching an agreement anytime soon. “The Russian side has long ago formed the answers to their questions,” he told reporters.

In a further sign that the conflict could worsen, President Emmanuel Macron of France emerged pessimistic from a long phone conversation with Mr. Putin, according to an aide to Mr. Macron, who said the Russian leader seemed determined to control all of Ukraine.

The invasion has confronted Europe with one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said that one million people had fled Ukraine for neighbors to the West, primarily Poland — an increase of more than 300,000 from the day before. Hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced from their homes but remain within Ukraine, or fled or were evacuated eastward, into Russia. Ukraine’s railroad agency said westbound trains were only for evacuation.

Before the invasion, many military analysts believed that Russia would make short work of the Ukrainian forces. Even Ukraine’s own generals predicted that a full-scale Russian assault with shock troops and air power could overwhelm their military in days, if not hours. The Kremlin appeared to expect a quick capitulation.

It has not unfolded that way. Ukrainian troops, armed with anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles, have proved resourceful, legions of civilians have enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces, an auxiliary to the military, and the Ukrainian government says that 50,000 Ukrainians have returned from abroad to fight Russia.

The British Defense Ministry said the Russian column stalled north of Kyiv, believed to include essential food and fuel supplies as well as heavy artillery, had “been delayed by staunch Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion.”

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, after meeting in Brussels with Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Ukrainian military was “performing better and putting up more resistance than most experts expected, and surely more than Russia expected.”

In the south, Russian forces that captured their first major Ukrainian city, Kherson, a shipbuilding center ordinarily home to 300,000 people, were on the move toward Mykolaiv, with a peacetime population of almost 500,000 and one of Ukraine’s three largest ports.

Roughly 800 Russian vehicles, including a column of Grad rocket launchers, was nearing Mykolaiv, from the east, south and north, the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, said on Thursday. As of Thursday morning, there had been no shelling inside the city, he said, but Ukrainian forces on the perimeter were targeted with rocket fire, forcing them to change positions constantly.

“The city is ready for war,” he said.

Charging further into Ukraine could put Russian forces in danger of stretching themselves too thinly, said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute based in Arlington, Va. Already the forces in Ukraine’s south and elsewhere appear in some instances to have outpaced logistical units, forcing them to await fuel and other supplies.

Even so, preparations continued on Thursday to shore up defenses in Odessa, a city of one million and Ukraine’s largest port. The mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, visited an industrial area on the outskirts where teams of men were filling sandbags from a mountain of yellow dirt for barricades.

“Every bag of sand you fill is protection for our city,” he told the men.

In the morning came word that several Russian naval ships had left Crimea, headed toward Odessa. Ukrainian officials said the ships could have been deployed to assist an attack by Russian land forces, though by evening there was no clear sense of the vessels’ whereabouts. A single Ukrainian warship could be seen from Odessa’s shoreline.

Mr. Kofman said it was unlikely the Russian Navy would mount an amphibious assault on the city until its forces were also ready to attack by land.

Mr. Zelensky, like some Western officials, said many Russian soldiers, including some taken prisoner, had no idea they would be sent into Ukraine and were aghast to learn it, not understanding why they would be conducting such a war. “They don’t know why they are here,” he said in a speech posted on his Facebook page. “These are not warriors of a superpower. These are confused children who have been used.”

As word filters back of death, injury and capture, Russians are awakening to the reality of a war many had not expected and did not want. Ukrainian officials and ordinary citizens are posting to social media photos and videos of Russians killed or captured, and burned-out or abandoned Russian military vehicles. Rumors swirled through Russia of impending martial law, conscription and closed borders.

In just a week, sanctions and boycotts have deeply wounded the Russian economy, and more punitive measures are expected. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Apple, Spotify, Accenture and Ikea are among the many companies suspending operations in Russia. Major oil companies have called off joint ventures with Russian counterparts.

While some prominent Russians have denounced the war, the government is cracking down on the last vestiges of independent media, limiting access to information about the conflict. Lawmakers proposed prison sentences of up to 15 years for media that publish “fakes” — widely taken to mean anything that contradicts the Kremlin line.

Echo of Moscow, a freewheeling radio station, dissolved itself. The television channels Dozhd and TV Rain suspended operations indefinitely. Dmitri Muratov, the journalist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said that his newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, could be close to having to shut down.

Dozens of the top Russian chess players made statements opposing the war and appealing to Mr. Putin to stop it, including Ian Nepomniachtchi, the top-ranked Russian and recently a finalist for the world championship; Alexandra Kosteniuk, a former women’s world champion; and Alexander Grischuk, several times a candidate for the world championship.

Mr. Putin has insisted that Ukraine is rightfully a part of Russia, not a real country, and he is bent on re-establishing Moscow’s hold over much of Eastern Europe. He has called NATO’s eastward expansion a threat, particularly the prospect that Ukraine might join someday.

But the war has hardened anti-Kremlin attitudes in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, and far beyond. NATO has ramped up forces on its eastern flank, and an array of countries are sending advanced weaponry to Ukraine. Even Germany, a NATO member that had not sent arms into a conflict zone, has begun helping to arm Kyiv’s forces, as have Sweden and Finland, nonmembers that had tried to remain neutral in East-West clashes.

After Russia invaded, Ukraine applied for membership in the European Union, a step that would greatly deepen its ties to the West, and E.U. officials say that two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, may do the same.

Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa, Ukraine, and Richard Pérez-Peña from Los Angeles. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Anton Troianovski from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Ivan Nechepurenko from Sochi, Russia; Marc Santora from Lviv, Ukraine; Helene Cooper from Stuttgart, Germany; Aurelien Breeden from Paris; and Valeriya Safronova.

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