By Jamie Dettmer
Russia and Ukraine had their first prisoner exchange Tuesday since the Kremlin ordered the invasion of its neighbor six days ago, but it came on a day of further mayhem and destruction as Russian forces stepped up attacks on cities and towns across Ukraine, striking at civilian infrastructure and communications facilities, including Kyiv’s iconic main TV Tower.
Five people were killed in the strike on the tower, Ukrainian authorities reported. In a tweet, the defense ministry has said some Ukrainian channels will not work for a while.
Grad rockets rained down on Ukraine’s battered but still defiant capital just after Russians warned residents to leave their homes saying they would be targeting security and intelligence buildings and civil communications in order to prevent “information attacks” on Russia.
Russia’s Defense Ministry warned anyone near such potential targets to leave. “We call on… Kyiv residents living near relay nodes to leave their homes,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
People took the warning seriously with one family who live near a major intelligence building in the capital telling VOA by phone they wasted no time in getting to shelter. “Right now we are sitting in the metro station,” said Dima, an 18-year-old student.
Amid the stepped-up fighting, the sides effected their first prisoner swap. A Ukrainian military official in the Sumy region, Dmytro Zhyvytskiy, said in a Telegram announcement there had been a prisoner swap. “The first exchange of prisoners took place in Sumy region. We exchanged our five people from the territorial defense for one Russian military police officer,” Zhyvytskiy said.
The ferocity of the airstrikes, rocket and missile attacks — including on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city — appeared to give credence to U.S. intelligence reports that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has become infuriated at the slower than expected progress of his forces in subjugating Kyiv and Kharkiv. They fear the Russian leader will bear down even harder in a bid to break Ukrainian resolve.
Satellite images of a 60-kilometer-long armored column approaching the capital from the North have sparked concerns that Russia is redoubling efforts to seize Kyiv, possibly in a major ground offensive planned for Wednesday or Thursday. U.S. officials say Russia’s efforts to breach Kyiv had slowed in the previous 24 hours, likely as a result of the stiff resistance and fuel and supply challenges.
Some military analysts predict a renewed offensive on Kyiv could mark an inflection point in the war. If it is repulsed, they reason, Putin will have lost his opportunity to end the conflict quickly, while Ukrainian forces will gain more time to organize and receive increasingly large resupplies of munitions and arms from Western allies.
Russian forces seem outmatched in terms of morale and fighting spirit, say military strategists such as Edward Luttwak. “Fragmentary battlefield reports suggest that many Russian soldiers find their tasks distasteful, reducing their propensity to attack with full force. Putin’s political preparation was poor: Russian troops are not encountering Neo-Nazis but only people very much like themselves,” he tweeted.
“Looking at the Russian operation so far, they’re having tremendous problems with logistics and communications,” said Michael Kofman, an analyst with CNA, a Washington, D.C.-based defense think tank, “The whole effort seems shambolic.”
Ukraine’s military claims it has killed 5,700 Russian troops so far. On Monday, Ukraine offered amnesty and cash to any Russian soldiers who lay down their weapons.
Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine are set to resume this week but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Russia must stop bombing Ukrainian cities before any meaningful talks on a cease-fire can start. Zelenskyy urged NATO members to impose a no-fly zone to ease the Russian air force bombing of Ukraine.
The Russian military appears to be readying for more casualties. A nurse in Belarus told VOA more Belarusian civilian hospitals, and others further away from the border, are being repurposed to receive Russian wounded — suggesting those nearer the border with Ukraine are becoming overwhelmed.
While Russian forces are being stymied around Kyiv, in the South they appear to be advancing and threatening to seize the port city of Mariupol. The Ukrainian military reported that they had repelled a tank attack and captured six Russian servicemen in Mariupol. Locals in the city say they have been unable to get any Ukrainian television channels and are only receiving Russian news. They told VOA their internet is down.