Smaller-scale strikes on Ukrainian targets continued without pause on Friday as Russia, suffering heavy losses and meager progress against key targets, pursued a relentless campaign of bombardment while claiming the first phase of its “military operation” was over.
Giving only its second death toll of the war, the Russian army said it had suffered 1,351 fatalities in the invasion. Ukraine and Western intelligence say it is many thousands more.
In a potentially significant shift, the Russian army said the first phase of its campaign was over and its troops would now focus on the “liberation” of the Russian-speaking Donbas region in Ukraine’s east.
Sergei Rudskoi, chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, said the shift was possible because “the combat potential of Ukraine’s armed forces has been significantly reduced.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, however, indicated no let-up in his country’s refusal to accede to Russian demands after what he termed “very difficult” talks with Moscow.
“We insist, first of all, on a ceasefire, security guarantees, and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.
And while Mariupol and other places are now charred ruins, Western systems including shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles have helped Ukraine’s armed forces hold their line — and increasingly to go on the offensive.
“Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines, has allowed Ukraine to re-occupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of Kyiv,” Britain’s defense ministry said in a daily update.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden, visiting troops in Poland, referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a man who, quite frankly, I think is a war criminal,” adding: “And I think we’ll meet the legal definition of that as well.”
Potentially highlighting that, Russian strikes targeting a medical facility in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv killed at least four civilians and wounded several others, police said.
Several residents said that cluster munitions were used, spraying death indiscriminately.
“This morning, following a bombardment on civilian infrastructure from several rocket launchers, seven civilians were injured, four of them died,” police in the eastern city near Russia’s border said.
Kharkiv mayor Ihor Terekhov accused Russian forces of “indiscriminate” shelling of his city and said that nearly two-thirds of its 1.5 million residents have had to flee since the war started a month ago.
“These criminal bombings target residential areas, civilians and infrastructure such as schools,” Terekhov told reporters during an improvised briefing in a secret location meant to be safe from bombs.
“It’s a war against Kharkiv, against Ukraine, against civilians,” he said.
Friday’s strikes targeted a medical center in the Osnovyansky district of the city, police said.
In the aftermath, several people stood near the site of the strike in the residential area near the airport.
“I had gone out looking for bread. There were explosions. When I came back there were four bodies lying there, with relatives crying by their side,” 71-year-old Mykola Hladkiy said.
Several residents said cluster munitions were used and there were large fires after other hits in the city.
Kharkiv has seen heavy fighting and vast destruction since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion launched late last month.
The World Health Organization said Friday that the number of verified attacks on health care in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24 has reached 72, killing 71 deaths and wounding 37.
Kyiv says Moscow is deliberately targeting civilian areas, an accusation Russia denies.