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Russia steps up attacks on key Ukrainian cities as refugees reach 1 million

Kherson was the subject of fierce fighting and a dispute over who was in control. To the north, Kharkiv faced new shelling and an attack from paratroopers.
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VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — As Russia stepped up its assault on key Ukrainian cities for a seventh day Wednesday, the deadly fallout for Ukrainian civilians and economic repercussions on Russian citizens continued to grow.

In the week since the invasion began, more than 1 million people have left Ukraine for neighboring countries, the U.N. refugee agency said.

"For many millions more, inside Ukraine, it’s time for guns to fall silent, so that life-saving humanitarian assistance can be provided," Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, tweeted Wednesday night.

Russia intensified its offensive on four strategic cities: Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson and Kyiv, with a mileslong military convoy continuing to threaten Kyiv, the capital, although it appears to be stalled, a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday.

Ihor Kolykhaev, the mayor of Kherson, said his city was encircled Wednesday and pleaded for an open corridor to move in supplies, such as food and medicine. He said an open route was also necessary so that officials could transport out the wounded and dead.

“Without all that, the city will not survive,” Kolykhaev said.

Kolykhaev said in a Facebook post Wednesday that Kherson was “in a difficult situation” and “waiting for a miracle” amid reports that the city had fallen under Russian control. City Hall was shelled, residents should stay inside, and officials were working to restore critical infrastructure that was destroyed, he added.

Moscow’s invasion threatened to bring even greater violence and destruction to civilian areas across the country.

President Joe Biden warned in his State of the Union address Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would pay a “high price” for his actions and declared that Putin was “now isolated from the world more than ever.”

Latest developments on Ukraine:

  • Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, is hit by fresh attacks.
  • The International Criminal Court said it has opened an investigation into Russia’s invasion based on the referral of 39 member countries.
  • More than 1 million people have left Ukraine for neighboring countries in the week since the invasion began, according to the U.N.
  • Russia and Ukraine will meet for further negotiations as hundreds of thousands flee the country amid intensifying fighting.
  • SWIFT, a service that facilitates global transactions among thousands of financial institutions, says it will cut off seven Russian banks as of March 12 in accordance with European Union guidance.

After Putin massed forces on Ukraine’s borders for months in a tense standoff with Washington and Europe, his initial aim seemed to be the overthrow of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Western-leaning government. But fierce Ukrainian resistance has contributed to Russian troops’ getting bogged down outside key cities, fueling fears that Moscow could resort to more brutal violence and escalate what is already one of the most intense military conflicts on the continent since World War II.

A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that Russia has moved 82 percent of the force it had amassed along the border into Ukraine, adding that the U.S. had counted more than 450 Russian missile launches since the conflict began.

The official said it was not always clear whether the Russians were purposefully targeting civilian targets but said the missile and artillery strikes had grown more aggressive, which could cause them to become less precise.

“Clearly they are hitting civilian targets,” the official said. “Clearly they continue to cause civilian harm.”

U.S. imposes further sanctions

The Biden administration intensified its sanctions against Russia Wednesday. The White House announced that it would restrict technology exports that support Russia’s refining capacity, a first step in targeting the country’s energy production — a major financial support.

The Justice Department also announced it would launch a task force to enforce sanctions. Called Task Force KleptoCapture, the group includes the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Services, as well as the Secret Service, the IRS, the Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations.

It “will investigate and prosecute current and future sanctions resulting from the Ukraine invasion.” The efforts will include fending off attempts by the Russians to undermine the financial restrictions, targeting the use of cryptocurrency to avoid sanctions and seizing Russian oligarchs’ assets, the Justice Department said.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday afternoon that the U.S. had taken an additional step and sanctioned 22 Russian defense-related entities, “including companies that make combat aircraft, infantry fighting vehicles, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicle electronic warfare systems, the very system that is now being used to assault the Ukrainian people.”

Still, he emphasized that the U.S. was open to dialogue and hoped individual Russians understood that no one blamed them for the war.

Blinken said the path may be difficult, “but if Russia pulls back and pursues diplomacy, we stand ready to do the same thing.”

Biden painted the intense global backlash against Putin in his first State of the Union address as evidence that the U.S. and its allies could meet Russia’s challenge to the post-Cold War order.

“He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us here at home,” Biden said. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.

“While he may make gains on the battlefield, he will pay a continuing high price over the long run,” Biden added.

Russia’s economy has spiraled since the U.S. and its allies imposed crippling sanctions. The Moscow Stock Exchange remained closed for the third day Wednesday, while Apple halted all sales of its products in Russia to add to the country’s isolation.

Condemnation continues to grow internationally after the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution denouncing the invasion and called for the end of hostilities. Five countries, including Russia, voted against it.

“The message of the General Assembly is loud and clear,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said. “End hostilities in Ukraine — now. Silence the guns — now. Open the door to dialogue and diplomacy — now.”

There is also growing evidence of some dissent within Russia, but Putin’s government and the country’s security services appear to be trying to quash it. Two independent media outlets were blocked Tuesday after authorities accused them of reporting “false information.”

Among other things, the Kremlin is not allowing the fighting to be referred to as an “invasion” or a “war.” The Defense Ministry did for the first time, however, announce its losses Wednesday. It said 498 Russian soldiers had been killed in the conflict so far, with an additional 1,597 wounded.

Zelenskyy has said up to 6,000 Russians have been killed.

In line with Zelenskyy ’s estimates, two Western officials said about 5,800 Russians have been killed. One U.S. official, however, cautioned that the estimates are extremely difficult to pin down in the fog of war and have ranged from as low as 500 to more than 5,000.

“The numbers are hard to really get a good handle on,” a senior Western intelligence official said.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday afternoon that Russia was ready for a second round of talks with Ukrainian officials.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said Wednesday that Ukraine had sent a delegation to western Belarus for talks that would take place Thursday.

Later Wednesday, David Arakhamia, the head of Zelenskyy’s party in Parliament, walked back those sparse details about the talks, although he confirmed they would still happen.

Casualties rising, supplies running low

Despite increasing strikes on civilian areas, Russian troops targeting Ukraine’s two largest cities have made little progress over the last day because of both “logistical difficulties” and strong Ukrainian resistance, Britain’s defense ministry said.

Russian artillery and airstrikes have aimed at “built up areas” in its target cities, the ministry said. Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of war crimes for targeting civilians and hitting residential districts. Moscow has consistently denied the claims.

“Many of our cities and villages are now suffering from Russian terror, but Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson are getting the most,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Facebook.

Russian paratroopers landed in Kharkiv, a key northeastern city with a population of 1.5 million, according to Ukraine’s state communications service, citing its security service. Battles broke out between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and Russian troops attacked a military medical center, the statement said.

New Russian strikes also hit the regional police, the intelligence headquarters and a building that is part of Kharkiv National University, killing at least four people and injuring nine more, according to the Ukrainian state emergency services.

Videos and photos released by the emergency services showed fires burning on a roof, with piles of rubble littering the streets as firefighters watched charred debris fall several stories to the ground from burning buildings. NBC News has verified the video but not confirmed the numbers of any people killed.

The windows of the City Council, as well as buildings nearby, were blown out after a cruise missile hit nearby, local officials said. NBC News has not verified the claim.

Food is running low in the city, with most shops closed and bread one of the only staples available to buy, said Denys Pavlenko, 33, who has been spending most of his time in the basement of his office with family members. He recently decided it was time to leave and said he plans to head to Lviv in the country’s west.

“The first day was scary, but then you get used to it,” he said of the airstrikes. “You get used to the blasts and shock waves, when your teacups are shaking, car sirens are going off outside.”

Firefighters work to contain a fire at the Economy Department building of Kharkiv's National University after Ukraine said it was hit by new Russian shelling Wednesday.Sergey Bobok / AFP - Getty Images

The city had come under an intensifying assault Tuesday from the ground and the air, with around 21 people killed and 112 others injured, said Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional council.

The port city of Mariupol appeared calmer Wednesday after it had come under intense shelling on Tuesday, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said.

Russia said it had the area surrounded, with its forces controlling the entire coast of the Sea of Azov, Reuters reported.

Ukrainian officials have said they will focus their efforts on ensuring Kyiv does not fall.

Mayor Vitali Klitschko warned that the “enemy is bringing forces closer to the capital.” Ukrainian and Russian forces fought overnight northwest of the city, he said.

“We are preparing and will defend Kyiv,” he said in a video posted on Telegram.

To help with the defense, the U.S. delivered hundreds of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine this week, with more than 200 arriving Monday, two congressional officials briefed on the deliveries said.

The shipment is part of a $350 million lethal and nonlethal aid package the White House announced Friday night, a;though the Biden administration did not previously share that the packages included Stinger missiles.

The relatively simple weapon, which a person can fire to take down aircraft and helicopters, has been used in previous conflicts. The U.S. is known to have supplied them to Afghanistan’s resistance against Russia in the 1980s.

Germany announced last weekend that it would send 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine, as well.

The Defense Department and the National Security Council declined to comment on the missiles. A senior defense official confirmed that the U.S. supplied weapons and assistance to Ukraine all week but declined to say whether the shipments included Stinger missiles.

The package also included Javelin anti-tank missiles and ammunition, the congressional officials added, both of which the Zelenskyy government has said it needs to fight off the advancing Russian military.

The additional military aid arrives as Zelenskyy has accused Russia of aiming to erase his country after the intensifying airstrikes hit urban areas, including Kyiv.

“They know nothing about our capital, about our history, but they have an order: to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all,” he said in a speech posted on social media early Wednesday.  

Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, invoked the barbarism of the Holocaust on Tuesday after Russian forces hit a television tower beside Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv where Nazi Germany committed atrocities during World War II. Five people were killed in the strike, he said.

Ukrainian officials and global leaders have accused Russia of hitting residential districts; Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians.

The number of people who have fled for neighboring countries topped 1 million, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday.

The tally amounts to more than 2 percent of Ukraine’s population on the move in under a week. The World Bank counted the population at 44 million at the end of 2020.

The U.N. agency has predicted that up to 4 million people could eventually leave Ukraine but cautioned that even that projection could be revised upward.

Families have been separated as a growing wave of people have fled their homes and tried to ensure the safety of their children, while others stayed back to join the fight.

The war killed at least 142 civilians in its first four days, Feb. 24-28, according to figures the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights released Wednesday. The true figures are likely to be higher, as further deaths have been reported since then.

“Most of these casualties were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems as well as air strikes,” the U.N. human rights office said in a statement.

Ukraine’s state emergency services, however, said Wednesday that since the war began, around 2,000 civilians have died. The agency later walked back the number, calling it “approximate,” as it is unknown how many people are under fire or debris.

NBC News has not confirmed the numbers of any deaths.

Anastasiia Parafeniuk reported from Vinnytsia, Ukraine, Rachel Elbaum reported from London and Phil McCausland reported from New York.