Lviv (Ukraine): Russia widened its military offensive Friday in Ukraine. It struck near airports in the west of the country for the first time. Observers and satellite photos indicated that its troops, long stalled in a convoy outside the capital Kyiv, were trying to maneuver to encircle the city.
With the invasion now in its third week, the US and its allies prepared to step up their efforts to isolate and sanction Russia by revoking its most favoured trading status. The move comes amid mounting outrage after a deadly airstrike hit a maternity hospital in the key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, under an increasingly constricting 10-day-old siege.
The new airstrikes in western Ukraine were likely a message from Russia that no area was safe, Western and Ukrainian officials said. Russian forces have struggled in the face of heavier-than-expected resistance and supply and morale problems. So far, they have made the most advances on cities in the south and east while stalling in the north and around Kyiv.
Strikes on the western Lutsk airfield killed two Ukrainian servicemen and wounded six people, according to the head of the surrounding Volyn region, Yuriy Pohulyayko. In Ivano-Frankivsk, residents were ordered to shelters after an air raid alert, Mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv said.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons Friday to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk ‘out of action’. He did not provide details.
New satellite photos, meanwhile, appeared to show a massive Russian convoy outside the Ukrainian capital had fanned out into towns and forests near Kyiv. Artillery pieces were raised for firing in another potentially ominous movement.
The 40-mile (64-kilometre) line of vehicles, tanks and artillery had massed outside the city early last week. However, its advance appeared to stall as reports of food and fuel shortages circulated. US officials said Ukrainian troops also targeted the convoy with anti-tank missiles.
The satellite imagery, from ‘Maxar Technologies’, showed the 40-mile line of vehicles, tanks and artillery outside Kyiv had been redeployed.. Armoured units were seen in towns near the Antonov Airport north of the city. Some vehicles moved into forests, Maxar reported, with towed howitzers nearby in position to open fire.
Reports said they were likely preparing for a ‘siege rather than assault’ on Kyiv because of continuing low morale and logistical problems.
The British Ministry of Defence said that after making ‘limited progress’ because of logistical mishaps and Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces were trying to ‘re-set and re-posture’ their troops, gearing up for operations against Kyiv.
Moscow also gave new indications that it plans to bring fighters from Syria into the conflict. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia knew of ‘more than 16,000 applications’ from countries in the Middle East, many of them from people who he said had helped Russia against the Islamic State group, according to a Kremlin transcript.
Responding to Shoigu, President Vladimir Putin approved bringing in ‘volunteer’ fighters and told his defence minister to help them ‘move to the combat zone’.
Increasing the pressure on Moscow, the US and other nations were poised later Friday to announce the revocation of Russia’s ‘most favoured nation’ trade status. It would allow higher tariffs to be imposed on some Russian imports. Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow to Russia, causing the ruble to plunge, foreign businesses to flee and prices to rise sharply.
Russian airstrikes also targetted for the first time the eastern city of Dnipro, a major industrial hub and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city in a strategic position on the Dnieper River. Three strikes hit early Friday, killing at least one person, according to Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Heraschenko.