Russia seeking to encircle Ukraine’s capital in ‘coming days’: Pentagon

US defence official says Moscow is also attempting to seize Mariupol and Kharkiv in the east

People walk past burnt cars on Monday after the shelling of a residential area in Kiev, Ukraine. EPA
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The US Defence Department determined on Monday that Russia’s military in Ukraine plans to encircle Kiev in the “coming days” as well as seize control of two major cities in the east of the country.

A senior US defence official briefing reporters said Russia’s encirclement of the Ukrainian capital is a key objective for Moscow.

“Their advance on Kiev still appears to be their main line of effort, and we expect that they’re going to want to continue to move forward and try to encircle the city in coming days,” the official said.

US officials estimate that Russian forces are encamped 25 kilometres from Kiev as the invasion enters its fifth day.

Another Russian objective is seizing Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and the city of Mariupol in the east.

The shelling of Kharkiv intensified in the past 24 hours and Human Rights Watch told The Washington Post that Russian forces had “used Smerch cluster munition rockets, which disperse submunitions, or bomblets, in the attack”.

Amnesty International claimed that cluster munitions had also been used in the Ukrainian town of Okhtyrka on Friday.

But the US official saw signs of frustration and lack of preparedness on the Russian military side.

“Fuel and sustainment are unique challenges to [Russian troops] right now,” he said and added that Moscow did not plan for these logistical challenges.

Several videos shared online in the past 72 hours showed Russian tanks and armoured vehicles stranded on roads in Ukraine after they ran out of fuel.

Asked if the Russian mercenary group Wagner is involved in the fighting, the US official said there were “some indications” of its presence in Ukraine.

“It’s not exactly clear where or how much, but we’ve seen some indications that they’re being employed.”

The US official said Ukrainian resistance remains effective and their forces are “still putting up stiff and determined resistance … their air and missile defence capabilities are viable and effective and engaged”.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 5:33 PM
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