Ukraine accuses Russia of ‘war crimes’ targeting civilians as fighting enters Kharkiv

Fighting has broken out on the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, after Russian forces entered the city, Oleh Synehubov, the head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, said Sunday. “Don’t leave your shelters!” he posted on Facebook, warning civilians not to go out on the streets. Ukrainian forces had managed to deter the Russians for the past three days.

Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine is now entering its fourth day. But despite being far better equipped, Russia has failed to take control of key cities, as ordinary Ukrainians and reservists join efforts to defend their homes and families.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday accused Russian troops of targeting civilians, including children, and called for an international investigation into the conflict.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has previously said it is targeting only military infrastructure, saying in a statement: “The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation do not strike cities and towns, they take all measures to save the lives of civilians.”

But Zelensky rejected this, saying: “They lied when they said they would not target civilian population. Since the first hours of the invasion, Russian troops have been hitting civilian infrastructure.”

Ukraine is “documenting their crimes,” he said, adding: “This is terror.”

In another video message, Zelensky said he would be willing to hold talks with Russia but rejected the Russian proposal for a meeting to be held in Belarus, pointing out that Russian military actions are being launched from the country.

“Of course we want peace and want to meet. We want to end the war. Warsaw, Bratislava, Istanbul and Baku were offered to Russia. Any other cities are fine with us as long as there are no missiles flying from this country,” Zelensky said, addressing Belarus directly.

According to the Kremlin, a Russian delegation has arrived in Belarus for notional talks, Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported Sunday.

Russian offensive failing, Ukrainian PM says

On Saturday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Russia’s offensive was failing and it was now deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure, including kindergartens, residential blocks and “buses with children” — actions he labeled as “war crimes.”

“For these crimes, the Russian command will surely see military tribunal,” Shmyhal said at a press conference Saturday. “The enemy will surely be punished for killing Ukrainian children.” Russia has previously maintained it is not targeting civilian areas.

“The Russian government doesn’t understand they are not fighting only with the government, in fact they are fighting against the entire Ukrainian people,” he added.

Russian troops are facing a determined and highly-motivated Ukrainian resistance, resulting in significantly slower progress than Kremlin military planners had first anticipated, according to an assessment issued by Britain’s Ministry of Defense late Saturday.

“Intensive exchanges of rocket artillery overnight have been followed by heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv,” another British assessment said Sunday. After encountering strong resistance in Chernihiv, Russian forces were now bypassing the area to prioritize “the encirclement and isolation of Kyiv,” it added.
Russia is facing unexpected difficulties supplying its forces, and is experiencing heavier losses in personnel, armor and aircraft than expected, two senior United States officials with direct knowledge told CNN.

Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Borys Kremenetsky told reporters Saturday that Ukraine had captured around 200 Russian soldiers, some of whom were just 19 years old. They were not trained at all and were badly equipped, he said. CNN has not been able to independently verify this.

Russia has yet to establish air supremacy over Ukraine, one US official said, as the Ukrainian Air Force and air defense systems fight for control of the airspace. Without uncontested control of the skies, it becomes more difficult for an army on the move to see and strike targets from the air.

So far these challenges have prevented the quick overthrow of major Ukrainian cities, including the capital, which US officials were concerned could play out in a matter of days. The city of Kharkiv near Ukraine’s border with Russia also has not failed to invade forces — despite officials worrying that it could happen on the first night of an invasion.

A NATO official agreed that Russian forces were having problems.

President Zelensky is a profile in courage

“They lack diesel, they are proceeding way too slow and morale is obviously an issue,” said the official.

Asked whether Russians are likely to intensify their efforts, the official said they have no choice. “They are way behind schedule,” the official said. “This is getting out of hand for them, every additional day is very painful.”

But the Russians on Sunday countered reports of its military stalling, claiming the cities of Kherson and Berdyansk “were completely blocked” by Russian forces, and the city of Henichesk and the Chornobayivka airfield near Kherson, also known as Chernobayevka, had both been brought under control.

Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson, said a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile regiment surrendered in the Kharkiv region and 471 Ukrainian servicemen were captured.

CNN could not immediately verify those claims.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Sunday that checkpoints would be set up across the country to detect Russian troops and make their movements more difficult. This, he said, was “a necessary safety measure that will save many lives.”

Accusations of war crimes

Concerns are now growing that Russia may look to deploy indiscriminate battlefield weaponry in civilian areas in an attempt to decisively crush Ukrainian forces.

A CNN team spotted a Russian thermobaric multiple rockets launcher south of Belgorod, Russia, near the Ukrainian border early Saturday afternoon.

Thermobaric weapons have been used in Chechnya, with horrifying consequences, according to Human Rights Watch, and their use has been condemned by a number of non-governmental organizations.

There is no evidence that thermobaric weapons have been used in the conflict in Ukraine.

Though Russia has claimed it is not targeting civilian infrastructure, an increasing body of evidence on the ground suggests otherwise.

Ukraine has reported multiple civilian deaths, including a 6-year-old boy who died in heavy gunfire in a western district of Kyiv Saturday evening, according to a local hospital.

A woman was killed after a nine-story residential building in the eastern city of Kharkiv was hit by “enemy artillery” on Saturday night, according to Ukraine’s State Emergency Service.

And on Saturday, a large residential apartment block in the west of Kyiv was struck by what a Ukrainian government minister described as a Russian missile, as residents across the city were forced to seek shelter after a terrifying night punctuated by gunfire and explosions.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said late Saturday that the United Nations “reports at least 240 civilian casualties, including at least 64 people killed” in the fighting in Ukraine. Damage to civilian infrastructure has deprived hundreds of thousands of people of access to electricity or water, the statement added.

A defiant Ukraine

As the battle continues, a defiant Zelensky has released a series of videos urging citizens to defend their country.

Officials armed reservists with 18,000 guns and ammunition in Kyiv alone, and Ukrainian TV have broadcast instructions for making Molotov cocktails. Ukrainian males ages 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country.

“Each Ukrainian should keep one thing in mind: if you can stop and destroy the occupiers — do it. Everyone who can come back to Ukraine — come back to defend Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video message Saturday.

“We have withstood and successfully repelled enemy attacks. Fighting continues in different cities and regions of our country,” he said, adding that the capital Kyiv and key towns around it were still under Ukrainian control. “We have ruined their plans. They have no advantage over us.”

Sanctions will put Russia's 'fortress'  economy to the test

In a statement Sunday, Zelensky called on citizens of the world to join the fight against the “Russian war criminals.”

“This is not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules and peaceful coexistence,” he said.

At the same time, thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing for their lives. More than 150,000 people have fled Ukraine, most of them to Poland, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Saturday.

The Polish border guard said Saturday that 100,000 people have entered Poland from Ukraine since the invasion began Thursday.

Controlling the narrative in Russia

At home, the Kremlin appears to be in damage control, attempting to limit information about the difficulties its forces are facing in Ukraine.

Social media platform Twitter said Saturday it is being restricted inside Russia and is working to address the issue.

According to the assessment issued by Britain’s Defense Ministry late Saturday, the Russian government has reportedly restricted access to a number of social media platforms in a “probable attempt to conceal details regarding the situation in Ukraine from their own people.”

Russia’s media regulator told 10 news outlets that it would restrict access to their publications unless they stopped spreading “false information” — including the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the death of civilians caused by the Russian armed forces.

Opposition to war is also being restricted in the country. More than 2,600 people have been detained in Russia after taking part in anti-war protests, according to independent protest monitoring site OVD-Info. At least 1,370 of them were detained in protests in Moscow, according to the same site.

CNN’s Tim Lister and Ivana Kottasova reported from Kyiv. CNN’s Victoria Butenko, Nathan Hodge, Josh Campbell, Jonny Hallam, Jim Sciutto, Oren Liebermann, Mia Alberti, Olena Mankovska, Anna Chernova, Vasco Cotovio, Frederik Pleitgen, Ruba Alhenawi and Olga Voitovich contributed to this report.

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