Russia intensifies bombardments and prepares for renewed push on Ukrainian cities

Russian forces bombed Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and regrouped to make a push on its biggest cities as the US warned Vladimir Putin would “pay the price” for his unprovoked invasion.

During a seventh morning of fighting across the country, Russia stepped up a fierce aerial assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, while continuing its faltering advance on Kyiv with the aim of enveloping the capital from the north and north west.

The two sides made competing claims over the major southern city of Kherson on Wednesday morning. Russia’s defense ministry said it had captured the city while Kherson’s mayor said it remained under Ukrainian control but that Russian forces had seized the railway station and river port.

Nationwide, the troop movements, reinforcements and the shift to using more heavy weapons on urban areas have prepared the ground for what analysts expect to be a critical phase of the conflict, with Russia set to accelerate its ground offensives over coming days.

The clashes came as US President Joe Biden vowed to make the “dictator” Vladimir Putin face a reckoning for his aggression, saying the Russian president had “badly miscalculated” the strength of Ukrainian resistance and the resolve of the west.

“When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger,” the Biden said during his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Biden announced Russian flights would be shut out of US airspace, the latest in a wave of measures aimed at hobbling Putin’s economy. He also hinted that further sanctions could follow as the invasion progresses, saying Putin “has no idea what’s coming”.

Russia’s economy is already reeling from the squeeze on its financial sector, sanctions on oligarchs, flight restrictions across Europe and North America and a western corporate exodus from its economy.

Boeing announced it had halted major operations in Russia, which includes parts and maintenance for the country’s airlines, joining a fast-growing list of suspensions that includes Apple, ExxonMobil, Ford and Nike.

The controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 has become insolvent after targeted sanctions and Swiss-based miner and commodity trader Glencore also said it was reappraising its activities in Russia.

Concern over the conflict and its economic fallout pushed oil prices even further above $ 100, with Brent crude, the international benchmark, trading at a seven-year high of $ 111.27 early in the European day.

The human cost of the war has grown rapidly, with rising civilian casualties and 660,000 already fleeing Ukraine at a rate the UN said would become Europe’s biggest refugee crisis this century.

Residents of Kyiv heard loud explosions overnight, and sirens warning of incoming fire sounded in cities across the country.

Ukraine’s military said on Wednesday morning that enemy troops were continuing to launch bombing and missile strikes on critical infrastructure as they sought to close in on the capital Kyiv.

In a 7am update, the military’s general staff said that enemy troops were continuing their offensive on Kyiv with the aim of blocking the capital from the north and north-west. Moscow on Tuesday warned residents to clear out of unspecified areas around Ukraine’s communications infrastructure.

“Unsuccessful in advancing its forces, the enemy insidiously continues to launch missile and bomb strikes on critical infrastructure in order to intimidate the civilian population, which is courageously side by side with the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s military said.

Ukraine’s ministry of internal affairs said that the regional police headquarters in Kharkiv was one of the targets that had been hit. The government body shared pictures of firefighters trying to douse flames in the blown-out building as burning rubble fell to the ground.

Video: Russia strikes government building in center of Kharkiv

The update came after a day in which Russia hit Kyiv’s television tower in a missile attack and sent people in Kharkiv into shelters amid heavy bombardment.

The BBC reported Russian paratroopers had landed in Kharkiv on Wednesday morning, part of an assault to take the north-eastern city that has suffered some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

Video footage published on the Ukrainian Telegram channel Ukraina: operativno showed several houses in flames in Zhitomir, west of Kyiv, after a reported rocket attack.

The Ukrainian military said it was also foiling Russian attempts to surround the cities of Sumy, Lebedyn and Okhtyrka, and that Russian troops were trying to block the strategic port city of Mariupol “without success”. The Ukrainian military’s claims could not be independently verified.

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