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Russian forces ramped up their attack on cities across Ukraine on Sunday, with Ukrainian authorities reporting that the Russians blew up a gas pipeline in the northeastern city of Kharkiv and an oil depot in Vasylkiv, a town just southwest of Kyiv, where fire raged.
Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection warned that the explosion at the gas pipeline in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city located in the northeast of the country, could cause an “environmental catastrophe” and urged residents to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze.
A similar warning was issued to residents of the Kyiv region because of thick smoke from the oil depot blaze in Vasylkiv.
In Kharkiv on Sunday morning, the regional governor Oleg Sinegubov warned that “light technology” had broken through the city’s defenses, “including in the central part of the city.” He told residents in a Facebook post to shelter in place and not go out onto the streets. Journalists based in the city reported a heavy overnight bombardment with multiple-launch rocket systems. A Russian column also appeared to be pushing into the city of Sumy, with residents told to shelter in place and an air raid alert sounding just before 9 a.m. local time.
But entering the fourth day of heavy fighting, Ukraine still held its capital — defying expectations, particularly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was reported in Moscow to have ordered his forces to take the capital by Monday at any cost.
“The situation in Kyiv is calm, the capital is completely controlled by the Ukrainian army and defense forces,” said Mykola Povoroznyk, the first deputy head of Kyiv City State Administration, in a statement released just before 7 a.m. Kyiv time. An air raid siren was heard in the city shortly afterward.
By many accounts, the Ukrainian military put up a fiercer and more effective defense against the Russian invaders than anyone anticipated, holding the capital but also creating an acute risk that Moscow would turn the type of indiscriminate bombing that it employed in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and in Aleppo, Syria, where it mercilessly attacked opponents of the Kremlin-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov trumpeted his military’s resilience in a post on social media, saying it had proved doubters wrong. “72 hours of resistance!” he tweeted. “The world didn’t believe. The world doubted. But we did not just stand, we confidently continue to fight.”
Western officials and military and intelligence analysts said Moscow appeared to have miscalculated the difficulties, and it was clear that Russia was suffering significant, and increasingly losse. The Ukrainian defense ministrysaid in a statement that, over the course of Saturday, Ukraine had downed 18 helicopters, 16 aircraft, 102 tanks, 540 combat vehicles and one Buk missile system.
Ukraine said Russia had lost 3,000 military personnel, a statistic that was impossible to confirm. Russia has not confirmed its losses and has largely sought to limit reporting of the war on Russian media.
Earlier, the Ukrainian Air Force said it had taken out three Russian Sukhoi Su-30 and two Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters, and a second giant Il-76 transporter plane, which can carry large numbers of airborne troops.
On Sunday morning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office announced the formation of a new unit, the International Legion of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, to be made up of foreigners who wish to fight for the country. “Anyone who wants to join the defense of security in Europe and the world can come and stand side by side with Ukrainians against the invaders of the 21st century,” Zelenskiy said in a statement.
In one of seemingly endless surreal developments, John Spencer, the chair of Urban Warfare Studies with the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point posted a tutorial for Kyiv residents hoping to defend their city, advising them on how to slow and disorient tanks, and to wage a guerrilla battle against professional soldiers. It was quickly translated into Ukrainian.
Overnight, Ukraine’s Armed Forces said they had stopped a column of Kadyrov forces near Hostomel, and killed Chechen General Magomed Tushayev. The Kadyrov forces are named after Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal authoritarian leader of Russia’s Chechnya region and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tushayev was Kadyrov’s right hand man.
Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Sunday that Moscow’s main tactic appeared to be the “capture of small cities, villages and connecting motorways,” while deploying rockets on major urban centers like Kyiv.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian forces had killed 198 Ukrainians, including three children, with 1,115 wounded, 33 children among them. More than 150,000 Ukrainian refugees have now crossed into neighboring countries, half of them to Poland, and many to Hungary, Moldova, and Romania, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Saturday.
Internal displacement within Ukraine is also growing, with many residents fleeing west, but the military situation made it difficult to estimate numbers, let alone provide aid.
In a video posted Saturday evening, Zelenskiy said the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “offered to organize talks” between Russia and Ukraine, which he said “can only be commended.”
“You know, today was a very good, sunny day in Kyiv,” Zelenskiy said in his video. “The day the invaders tried to destroy for us, like everything else in the country. But today is also the first day of the life of a girl who was born in a Kyiv subway this Saturday night. Now, it’s a shelter … I want to say just one more thing. We will fight as long as it takes to liberate the country. If children are born in shelters, even when the shelling continues, then the enemy has no chance in this undoubtably people’s war.”
Even as the reality of war in Europe finally seemed to sink in on Saturday and Western capitals intensified their response, announcing sanctions that would cut off some Russian banks for the SWIFT international payments system, the fate of Ukraine seemed certain to be decided on the battlefield.
Diplomats and officials in close contact with Ukrainian authorities said there was an urgent need for medical supplies, as Russia intensified its bombardment of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and other cities, and casualties mounted.
While EU countries announced plans to send more lethal weapons to Ukraine, it was unclear how fast those arms could be delivered and deployed. In Kyiv, in particular, there seemed a high risk that the war would soon morph into terrifying urban warfare, with citizens battling invading tanks and soldiers on the streets.
Reznikov, the defense minister, told Ukrainians “help is coming,” adding: “Many have finally conquered fear and dared to challenge the Kremlin. Help which was impossible three days ago is coming.”
This article has been updated.