The massive Russian military convoy that had been mired outside the Ukrainian capital for days appears to be repositioning – potentially signalling a renewed push towards Kyiv.
Imagery from US company Maxar Technologies released on Friday (Australian time) shows the 64-kilometre line of vehicles, tanks and artillery has broken up.
The line had been “largely dispersed and redeployed”, Maxar said.
The convoy had massed outside the city early last week but its advance appeared to have stalled amid reports of food and fuel shortages.
US officials said Ukrainian troops had also targeted the convoy with anti-tank missiles.
But there are signs the convoy is spreading out around Kyiv, with some vehicles seen sitting on roadways in residential areas in the town of Ozera, about 30 kilometres north-west of the capital. Towed artillery and other vehicles were spotted taking cover in a copses of trees near Lubyanka, about five kilometres north-west of the Antonov Air Base.
In Berestyanka – 30 kilometres west of the air base – fuel trucks and multiple rocket launchers are seen in a field. Other vehicles remain on the road south-east of Ivankiv.
On Thursday, a senior US defence official said the Russian forces had moved about five kilometres closer to Kyiv in the previous 24 hours.
Other battlefields developed in Kyiv on Thursday as well, after days of significant fighting to the city’s west and north-west. In a report from the embattled capital, CNN’s Clarissa Ward said there had been “an alarming development today, which is a real uptick in Russian activity to the east of the city”.
“We saw some very heavy fighting there,” she said.
Ward said Ukranian forces had fired missiles at a column of tanks, “basically picking off tanks in that Russian convoy”.
“It is certainly of grave concern to everybody here in this city that the Russians appear to be making a real play, pushing east and then potentially, of course, pushing downwards, presumably, the goal would be to totally encircle the city [of Kyiv]. And meanwhile, so many civilians, Wolf, are still pinned down and trapped under heavy fighting,” Ward said.
Civilians trapped in Ukraine cities
Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped in Ukrainian cities, sheltering from Russian air raids and shelling as talks between Ukraine and Russia’s foreign ministers made little apparent progress.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine entering its third week, officials in Mariupol said Russian warplanes again bombed the encircled southern port city where a maternity hospital was pulverised on Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian authorities had managed to evacuate almost 40,000 people from the cities of Sumy, Trostyanets, Krasnopillya, Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel and Izyum. But Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said no civilians were able to leave Mariupol on Thursday as Russian forces failed to respect a temporary ceasefire to allow evacuations.
Efforts to send food, water and medicine into the city failed when Russian tanks attacked a humanitarian corridor, Mr Zelensky said.
“This is outright terror … from experienced terrorists,” he said in a televised address.
Russia’s defence ministry said earlier it would declare a ceasefire on Friday and open humanitarian corridors from Mariupol as well as Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Chernihiv.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has failed to reach its stated objectives, but has caused thousands of deaths and forced more than two million people to flee Ukraine, where several cities are under siege.
It has also hit a global economy that is still emerging from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva said the war and the massive sanctions imposed on Russia as punishment had reduced global trade and raised food and energy prices, resulting in a lower global growth forecast.
Mr Putin, facing global condemnation and increasingly isolated, said Russia would emerge stronger after overcoming the difficulties caused by the sanctions.
He told a government meeting there had been no alternative to what Russia calls its special military operation in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba met in Turkey in the highest-level talks since Mr Putin ordered the invasion on February 24.
Mr Kuleba said Mr Lavrov had refused to promise to hold fire to allow aid distribution and the evacuation along humanitarian corridors of civilians trapped in Mariupol and elsewhere.
Mr Lavrov showed no sign of making any concessions, saying the operation was going to plan and repeating Moscow’s accusations that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia. It wants Kyiv to drop any aspirations of joining the NATO alliance.
In Washington, Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns said Mr Putin did not appear to have a “sustainable” end-game in Ukraine and might soon try to find a way to end the fighting.
A senior Ukrainian official said on Thursday that Russian planes bombed an institute in the city of Kharkiv that was home to an experimental nuclear reactor.
Earlier, the UN nuclear watchdog said Ukraine had told it on Thursday it has lost all contact with the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl next to the defunct power plant, which is now held by Russian forces.
Aid agencies say humanitarian help is most urgently needed in Mariupol, where residents are running out of food, water and power. Its capture would allow Russia to link pro-Moscow enclaves in the east and Russian-annexed Crimea to the south.
Attempts to send aid and evacuation convoys have failed for six days.
Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said 400,000 people were trapped in the city, which had gone through “two days of hell”.
Mr Lavrov said the hospital struck on Wednesday had stopped treating patients and had been occupied by Ukrainian “radicals”.
Russia’s defence ministry later denied having bombed the hospital, accusing Ukraine of a “staged provocation” there.