As Russian Shelling Intensifies, True Liberation Eludes Ukrainian City

KYIV, Ukraine — Three months after Ukrainians celebrated the expulsion of Russian forces from the city of Kherson, it is free of occupation but hardly at peace, a nebulous status that never seemed more clear than on Tuesday as Moscow suddenly stepped up its shelling there.

Ukrainian officials said that Russian forces had bombarded towns and villages on the west bank of the Dnipro River, the front line between the warring sides in the southern Kherson region, pounding them with hundreds of shells from tanks and artillery and dropping explosives from drones.

At least one person was killed and six more wounded over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday. The attacks, a military spokesman said, appeared intended “solely to terrorize and demonstrate military presence.”

The reports out of Kherson came as Ukrainian officials vowed to keep fighting for another eastern city — or at least what little was left of it.

Ukraine’s top military commander said on Tuesday evening that the defense of that ruined city, Bakhmut, remained of “paramount strategic importance” no matter the costs of the fight. The goal, said Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, is to use Bakhmut as a fortress from which to block Russian advances.

The State of the War

  • On the Front Lines: From Kupiansk to Bakhmut, Russian forces are attacking along a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine in an intensifying struggle for tactical advantage before possible spring offensives.
  • Plotting a Political Advance: Recent statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, suggest he wants to move past his standing as a military leader and play a larger role in Russian society.
  • War Crime Cases: The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The cases accuse Russia of abducting Ukrainian children and of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure.
  • Ukrainian Refugees in the U.S.: The Biden administration said that thousands of Ukrainians who fled to the United States in the first months of the war would be eligible to extend their stay.

The battle for Bakhmut is among the longest and deadliest since Russia launched its invasion a year ago. Some military analysts have questioned the wisdom of keeping Ukrainian forces there, arguing that the rate of casualties has become too high to justify fighting for a town with only marginal strategic value.

A Ukrainian mortar team firing on Russian positions in Bakhmut from Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, on Tuesday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

But officials in Kyiv insisted that it was worth it.

“It is key to the stability of the defense of the entire front,” General Zaluzhnyi said in a statement on Tuesday after meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top political and security officials.

Ukrainian officials said they had stabilized control over the main remaining road leading in and out of Bakhmut, allowing forces fighting there to be supplied and reinforced. While Russian forces now control the eastern half of the city, Ukrainian forces in the western half have taken up defensive positions in battered and blown-apart fortifications behind the river that bisects Bakhmut.

In Kherson, hundreds of miles to the southwest, communities have been regularly targeted since Ukrainian forces drove Russian forces out of the area in the fall. From Nov. 20, after the Russians withdrew, to Feb. 12, the city was shelled 1,991 times, according to the Kherson City Council. At least 80 people died and 222 people were injured, local officials said.

But the shelling this week has reached a new level of intensity, the Ukrainian military said. It was unclear why Moscow had stepped up its shelling.

Moscow “carried out 93 attacks, launching 412 shells and rockets from heavy artillery and Grad multiple-launch rocket systems,” the Kherson regional military administration said in a statement.

The attacks may be an effort by Russia to undermine Ukrainian preparations for a counteroffensive in the south. But they may also have a less strategic purpose. Though Ukrainian officials release daily updates on Russian strikes that hit civilian targets, they do not release details about attacks on military equipment or on concentrations of troops.

But over the course of the war, Moscow has repeatedly been accused of targeting civilians — it denies the claims — and Mr. Zelensky suggested earlier this week that this had happened once again.

“Russian shelling took the lives of people in Kherson who simply went to a store to buy groceries,” he said.

Traveling in a car damaged by shelling in Kherson on Tuesday.Credit…Oleksandr Gimanov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Shelling across the entire stretch of the southern and eastern front lines has also increased, according to Ukrainian military reports, statements from Ukrainian emergency services and video footage, as have attacks on Ukrainian communities near the Russian border.

Russian ground forces have mounted dozens of assaults in recent weeks aimed at breaking through Ukrainian defensive lines, without any strategic gains.

With Moscow continuing to throw vast resources into the battle for Bakhmut, Russian pro-war military bloggers have expressed growing concern that its forces could eventually be overwhelmed by what they say are large numbers of Ukrainian troops massing in the south.

Elsewhere, there were overnight reports of shelling in the regions of Sumy and Kharkiv, along Ukraine’s Russian border, as well as in towns and villages across other areas of the front line. And in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian stronghold about 30 miles from the fighting, one person was killed and at least three people were injured when a Russian rocket attack damaged at least six buildings in the city center, the Ukrainian authorities said.

About 20 miles south of Kramatorsk, at least two people were killed and seven wounded in shelling, officials said. The claims could not be independently confirmed.

Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, and Eric Nagourney from New York. Natalia Novosolova contributed reporting.

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