Russian forces pounded Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv and surrounding countryside with rockets, killing at least 15 people, in what Kyiv called a bid to force it to pull resources from the main battlefield to protect civilians from attack.
Inside Russia, a fire tore through an oil refinery just eight kilometer (five miles) from the Ukrainian border, after what the refinery described as a cross border attack by two drones.
In the main battlefield city of Sievierodonetsk, where Russia has claimed to have Ukrainian forces surrounded since last week, pictures filmed by a freelance journalist made clear the battle was not over, with Ukrainian troops able to resupply their garrison by crossing a river in inflatable rafts.
The Russian strikes on Kharkiv, throughout Tuesday and continuing on Wednesday morning, were the worst for weeks in the area where normal life had been returning since Ukraine pushed Russian forces back in a major counter-offensive last month.
“It was shelling by Russian troops. It was probably multiple rocket launchers. And it’s the missile impact, it’s all the missile impact,” Kharkiv prosecutor Mikhailo Martosh told Reuters amid the ruins of cottages struck on Tuesday in a rural area on the city’s outskirts.
Medical workers carried the body of an elderly woman out of the rubble of a burnt-out garage and into a nearby van.
“She was 85 years old. A child of the war (World War Two). She survived one war, but didn’t make it through this one,” said her grandson Mykyta. “There is nowhere to flee to. Especially grandmother herself, she didn’t want to go anywhere from here.”
Ukrainian authorities said there were reports of more casualties overnight and on Wednesday morning after 15 people were killed and 16 wounded on Tuesday in the Kharkiv region.
“Russian forces are now hitting the city of Kharkiv in the same way that they previously were hitting Mariupol - with the aim of terrorizing the population,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video address.
“And if they keep doing that we will have to react -- and that is one way to make us move our artillery,” he said. “The idea is to create one big problem to distract us and force us to divert troops. I think there will be an escalation.”
The main battlefield is now to the south of Kharkiv in the Donbas region, which Moscow has been trying to seize on behalf of its separatist proxies, with the worst fighting concentrated in the devastated city of Sievierodonetsk.
Ukrainian forces have largely been withstanding the Russian assault so far despite taking punishing losses, with Moscow making only slow progress using overwhelming artillery in some of the heaviest ground fighting in Europe since World War Two.
Russia says Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk are trapped. After the last bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river was destroyed last week, Moscow ordered the Ukrainians to surrender or die.
But Oleksandr Ratushniak, a freelance photographer who reached Sievierodonetsk with Ukrainian forces in recent days, filmed soldiers crossing the river in an inflatable raft, evidence that the garrison is not yet cut off.
Inside the ruins of the frontline industrial zone, the Ukrainian troops fired from a tank’s main gun. They smoked cigarettes as they hid from Russian artillery exploding outside. A dachshund scampered through the rubble.
“For us, this like digging up potatoes,” said one, describing the bombardment as a typical day of work.