Russian forces took control Thursday of the strategic Ukranian port city of Kherson as they continued to shell major cities in an offensive that has forced more than 1 million people to flee the country.
Local government officials and the Russian military confirmed the seizure of Kherson, the first city to fall in Russia’s week-old invasion of Ukraine, following days of disputed claims over who was in control. A U.S. defense official said Washington was unable to confirm the development.
Moscow’s attempt to quickly take over the Ukrainian capital has apparently stalled, but the military has made significant gains in the south as part of efforts to sever the country’s connection to Black and Azov seas.
Despite Russian assaults on Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday they all remained in Ukrainian hands.
“We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address early Thursday. “They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment.”
Russian troops were also besieging the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, an attempt Mayor Vadym Boichenko said was aimed at isolating Ukraine.
“They are trying to create a blockade here,” Boichenko said Thursday in a broadcast video. He said the Russians are attacking rail stations to prevent civilian evacuations and that the attacks have cut off water and power.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov cited expectations ahead of the invasion that Russia would quickly overtake Ukraine, writing on Facebook, “No one, neither in Russia nor in the West, believed that we would last a week.” He added that while there are challenges ahead, Ukraine has “every reason to be confident.”
Little hope for peace talks
Despite little sign of a potential breakthrough, the two sides are holding a second round of peace talks in Belarus Thursday. Ukraine said it would call for ceasefire and humanitarian passageways for its citizens.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Thursday Russian forces will continue their effort to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure and will not allow its neighbor to represent a military threat to Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States remains open to finding a diplomatic solution to the situation, but that Russia must first de-escalate.
“It’s much more difficult for diplomacy to succeed when guns are firing and tanks are rolling,” he told reporters Wednesday.
In a 90-minute telephone conversation Thursday initiated by Putin with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin told Macron that Russia would achieve its goals that include the demilitarization and neutrality of Ukraine by any means necessary, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Macron told his Russian counterpart the war he started against Ukraine was a “major mistake,” according to a French official. “You are lying to yourself,” Macron told Putin if he thinks his goals are realistic, said the official, who added Putin “wanted to seize control of the whole of Ukraine.”
Poland has taken in half of the more than 1 million refugees who have fled Ukraine in the past week, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. body has said it expects 4 million people could leave Ukraine due to the conflict.
Ukraine’s emergency agency said Wednesday Russia’s attacks have killed more than 2,000 people across the country.
Russia’s Defense Ministry put out its first casualties report, saying 498 of its troops were killed in Ukraine, while more than 1,500 others were wounded.
Russians still outside Kyiv
A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday Russian forces in northern Ukraine and outside Kyiv remained “largely stalled” despite U.S. assessments that 90% of Russia’s combat power that was prepared for the invasion had entered Ukraine.
The official said the cities in northern and eastern Ukraine, including Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv, were subjected Thursday to “heavy bombardment” but that Russian forces in the north were still facing stiff resistance from Ukrainians.
“We continue to see them resist and fight and defend their territory and their resources quite effectively,” said the official, who added Russia has launched more than 480 missiles since the invasion began.
Putin offered a more optimistic assessment Thursday, telling members of his security council on a video call that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is progressing “according to plan.” He added, “All tasks are being successfully carried out.”
Putin said his military has offered Ukrainian civilians safe passageways for them to leave areas of combat, as requested by Zelenskyy. Without providing evidence, Putin also accused Ukrainian nationalist groups of preventing civilians from fleeing and using them as human shields.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon also announced Thursday that it is postponing a nuclear missile test launch scheduled for this week. The decision comes days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on higher alert.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the decision to delay the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was made by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Kirby added that the United States would like to see Moscow reciprocate by “taking the temperature down” in the crisis over Ukraine.
Another factor that may be helping the Ukrainians is continued support from NATO and the United States.
VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching, national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb, Istanbul Foreign Correspondent Heather Murdock and White House correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report.