ears were growing that Vladimir Putin’s forces have started using more heavy artillery to pound key cities in Ukraine – risking a greater civilian death toll.
Western officials believe Russian defence chiefs are launching more indiscriminate strikes on urban areas to prepare the ground for armoured and mechanized units to advance forward.
They are suspected of adopting these tactics after suffering setbacks in Mr Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine and swiftly seize control of the capital Kyiv and other key cities.
One western official stressed that he was very concerned at the increased used on Monday of artillery, rockets and tube artillery, being used in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv by Russian forces.
He told of fears that Russian frustration at having failed to achieve key aims five days into the invasion was leading to use of more indiscriminate fire, using these weapons, and that as a consequence more civilians would be killed.
It comes after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned the battle against Vladimir Putin’s invasion was in a crucial 24-hour phase amid claims that Russian troops had been ordered to seize a major city “at any price”.
The Russian President’s forces have failed so far to achieve key objectives to capture Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other cities after suffering a series of setbacks.
Faced by fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russian commanders have been ordered to take either Kyiv or Kharkiv, the two biggest cities, by Monday “at any price”, reported Russian VCHK-OGPU Telegram channel, which has close links to the security services.
Russia invades Ukraine – In pictures
The order was said to have been given despite the objection of Russia’s paratroop command, which feared a catastrophic bloodbath.
“The command of the airborne forces was against it, saying the price would be too heavy in terms of human losses,” said the report.
“The General Staff said it was taking on itself full responsibility for this decision.”
Mr Zelensky told Boris Johnson in a call Sunday night that “the next 24 hours was a crucial period for Ukraine”, according to Downing Street.
Amid reports of heavy losses by both sides as the conflict entered its fifth day, the Ukrainian President warned Russian soldiers to “save your lives and leave”.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, ahead of attending a meeting of Whitehall’s emergency Cobra committee, said the main Russian tank column moving toward Kyiv was still about 30km (18 miles) to the north-west, stressing: “It is slow in its advance, if not sometimes stationary.”
He also sought to allay fears of a nuclear conflict after Putin said he was putting his arsenal of such appallingly destructive weapons on higher alert.
He added that Britons should not be “unduly alarmed” by the Russian President’s nuclear threat, which sent a shudder around the world, emphasising it was a “big attempt to distract” from the failures in the Kremlin’s invasion plans in Ukraine.
He told LBC radio how his son had asked him about the prospect of a nuclear war. “Dad, says No, we are not going to have a nuclear war,” he said.
In other developments:
- Blasts were heard before dawn in Kyiv and in the major eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian authorities said. But Russian ground forces’ attempts to capture major urban centres had been repelled, they added.
- A missile struck a residential building in Chernihiv.
- At least 94 civilian deaths have been killed during the first days of the invasion, according to UN observers.
- Peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials started on the border of Belarus, however, hopes of any significant breakthrough were low.
- US citizens were being advised to consider leaving Russia immediately with the State Department citing an increasing number of airlines cancelling flights and countries closing their airspace to Russia. The UK Government is keeping its advice under review.
- Residents in the southern city of Odessa were pictured with Molotov cocktails waiting for Russian paratroops. But in Russia, the speaker of parliament Vyacheslav Volodin claimed Russian troops were being welcomed, saying: “What did we see in these four days? On one hand, support from an overwhelming majority, who understand what is happening and are doing all they can to ensure the success of the operation. On the other hand, there are those who start reasoning about peace.”
- Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had taken over the towns of Berdyansk and Enerhodar in Ukraine’s south-eastern Zaporizhzhya region as well as the area around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Interfax reported.
- Ukrainian officials denied the Russian claims that its forces had captured Zaporizhzhya nuclear power station — the largest in Europe.
- The EU stepped up its military support for Ukraine, including possibly fighter jets, a move which the Kremlin said was dangerous and destabilising.
- Ukraine’s defence ministry claimed more than 5,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the first four days of fighting in Ukraine, with 191 tanks, 29 fighter jets, 29 helicopters and 816 armoured personnel carriers destroyed. These figures could not be verified.