ladimir Putin’s forces stood accused on Tuesday of slaughtering innocent civilians in Ukraine as a British intelligence analysis showed 80 per cent of damage to buildings in an advance on Kyiv were on homes.
The findings in the study of 3,500 buildings shred the Kremlin’s claim that civilian areas are not being targeted by Mr Putin’s troops in his invasion which is feared to have killed tens of thousands of civilians, including in war crimes executions.
UK defence chiefs believe the Russian president’s military has resorted to indiscriminate shelling and air strikes on civilian areas because of failures in being able to properly identify targets and to gain control of the skies which is limiting air missions.
They were unleashing their bombardments with “minimal regard to discrimination or proportionality,” putting civilians at greater risk of being killed or injured.More than 200 children have been killed since the invasion started on February 24, according to Ukrainian officials.
The British defence chiefs warned of more onslaughts on civilians areas as Mr Putin seeks to seize more territory in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk areas held by Moscow-backed separatists.
In its latest intelligence update, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “In the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv, approximately 3,500 buildings are estimated to have been destroyed or damaged during Russia’s abandoned advance towards the Ukrainian capital. 80% of the damage has been caused to residential buildings.
“The scale of this damage indicates Russia’s preparedness to use artillery against inhabited areas, with minimal regard to discrimination or proportionality.”
It added: “Russia has likely resorted to an increasing reliance on indiscriminate artillery bombardment due to a limited target acquisition capability, and an unwillingness to risk flying combat aircraft routinely beyond its own frontlines.
“In the coming weeks, Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on massed artillery strikes as it attempts to regain momentum in its advance in the Donbas.”
The besieged southern port city of Mariupol has been largely destroyed by Russian bombardments, Ukraine’s second biggest city Kharkiv has come under heavy attack and many smaller towns and villages have been significantly destroyed.
Mr Putin has refocused his military campaign on the Donbas after his lightning invasion plan which included seizing Kyiv within days, failed spectacularly and his troops were forced to withdraw from around the capital and from swathes of northern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv.
However, Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces were reinforcing and preparing to renew their offensive near Slovyansk and Drobysheve, southeast of the strategic town of Izyum, having suffered losses elsewhere.
Areas around Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border, have continued to come under Russian attack. A series of explosions were reported to have struck Lviv early on Tuesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
On Monday, Ukraine’s defence ministry said troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 25 miles north of Kharkiv.
The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month.
A village in Russia’s western province of Kursk bordering Ukraine came under Ukrainian fire on Tuesday, regional Governor Roman Starovoit said. Three houses and a school were hit but there were no injuries, he said.
Russian border guards returned fire to quell the shooting allegedly from large-calibre weapons on the border village of Aleksey.
Civilians targeted by Russian troops
Harrowing stories have been emerging from Ukraine of many civilians in their homes, schools and hospitals being targeted by Russian troops, artillery and air attacks.
Inna Levchenko, a teacher in the northern city of Chernihiv, told how her school was struck.
As she lay buried under the rubble, her legs broken and eyes blinded by blood and thick clouds of dust, all Ms Levchenko could hear was screams. It was 12.15pm. on March 3, and moments earlier a blast had pulverized the school where she’d taught for 30 years.
Amid relentless bombing, she’d opened School 21 in Chernihiv as a shelter to frightened families. They painted the word “children” in big, bold letters on the windows, hoping that Russian forces would see it and spare them. The bombs fell anyway.
Though she didn’t know it yet, 70 children she’d ordered to shelter in the basement would survive the blast. But at least nine people, including one of her students – a 13-year-old boy – would not.
“Why schools? I cannot comprehend their motivation,” she said. “It is painful to realize how many friends of mine died . and how many children who remained alone without parents, got traumatized. They will remember it all their life and will pass their stories to the next generation.”
The Ukrainian government says Russia has shelled more than 1,000 schools, destroying 95.
On May 8, a bomb flattened a school in Zaporizhzhia which, like School No. 21 in Chernihiv, was being used a shelter. As many as 60 people were feared dead.
Intentionally attacking schools and other civilian infrastructure is a war crime.
A theatre in Mariupol was also hit, killing hundreds of civilians, including children.
Experts say wide-scale wreckage can be used as evidence of Russian intent, and to refute claims that schools were simply collateral damage.
But the destruction of hundreds of schools is about more than toppling buildings and maiming bodies, according to experts, to teachers and to others who have survived conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Syria and beyond.
It hinders a nation’s ability to rebound after the fighting stops, injuring entire generations and dashing a country’s hope for the future.
In the nearly three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” have independently verified 57 schools that were destroyed or damaged in a manner that indicates a possible war crime. The accounting likely represents just a fraction of potential war crimes committed during the conflict and the list is updated daily.
In Chernihiv alone, the city council said only seven of the city’s 35 schools were unscathed. Three were reduced to rubble.
The International Criminal Court, prosecutors from across the globe and Ukraine’s prosecutor general are investigating more than 8,000 reports of potential war crimes in Ukraine involving 500 suspects.
Many are accused of aiming deliberately at civilian structures like hospitals, shelters and residential neighborhoods.
Targeting schools – spaces designed as havens for children to grow, learn and make friends – is particularly harmful, transforming the architecture of childhood into something violent and dangerous: a place that inspires fear.
A geography teacher, Elena Kudrik, lay dead on the floor of School 50 in the eastern Ukrainian town of Gorlovka. Amid the wreckage surrounding her were books and papers, smeared in blood. In the corner, another lifeless body – Elena Ivanova, the assistant headmaster- slumped over in an office chair, a gaping wound torn into her side.
“It’s a tragedy for us … It’s a tragedy for the children,” said school director Sergey But, standing outside the brick building shortly after the attack. Shards of broken glass and rubble were sprayed across the concrete, where smiling children once flew kites and posed for photos with friends.
A few miles away, at the Sonechko pre-school in the city of Okhtyrka, a cluster bomb destroyed a kindergarten, killing a child. Outside the entrance, two more bodies lay in pools of blood.
Valentina Grusha teaches in Kyiv province, where she has worked for 35 years, most recently as a district administrator and foreign literature instructor. Russian troops invaded her village of Ivankiv just as school officials had begun preparations for war. On Feburary 24, Russian forces driving toward Kyiv fatally shot a child and his father there, she said.
“There was no more schooling,” she said. “We called all the leaders and stopped instruction because the war started. And then there were 36 days of occupation.”
They also shelled and destroyed schools in many nearby villages, she said. Kindergarten buildings were shattered by shrapnel and machine-gun fire.
Despite the widespread damage and destruction to educational infrastructure, war crimes experts say proving an attacking military’s intent to target individual schools is difficult. Russian officials deny targeting civilian structures, and local media reports in Russian-held Gorlovka alleged Ukrainian forces trying to recapture the area were to blame for the blast that killed the two teachers there.
But the effects of the destruction are indisputable.
“When I start talking to the directors of destroyed and robbed institutions, they are very worried, crying, telling with pain and regret,” Ms Grusha said. “It’s part of their lives. And now the school is a ruin that stands in the center of the village and reminds of those terrible air raids and bombings.”
UNICEF communications director Toby Fricker, who is currently in Ukraine, agreed. “School is often the heart of the community in many places, and that is so central to everyday life.”