Russian forces appeared to be moving on Thursday to cut Ukraine off from the sea via its main southern ports, claiming the capture of Kherson and tightening the siege of Mariupol, as a large amphibious task force threatened Odessa to the west.
As the Russian naval assault in the south spread, a second merchant vessel – the Estonian carrier Helt – was hit and sunk after a Bangladeshi-owned freighter was hit by a projectile that killed one of its crew members.
The ports, spread across hundreds of miles of Ukraine’s coastline, stretching from the Sea of Azov in the east to the Black Sea, have become a heightened focus of attention for Russian forces in recent days – as it has become clear that the latest phase of the Russian invasion plan seeks to cut off and isolate large swaths of the country.
Cutting off Ukraine’s access to its shores would deal a crippling blow to the country’s economy and allow Russia to build a land corridor stretching from its border, through Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014, and as far west as Romania.
Another key target for Russian forces in the southeast appeared to be Zaporizhzhia and its nuclear power plant in southeast Ukraine, the largest in Europe, where Russian troops were attempting to breach a barricade at the plant erected by local residents and the Territorial Defense Forces.
The moves in the south of the country came as Russian forces attacked the country from three directions, seeking to stretch Ukraine’s armed forces and undermine their ability to respond.
In the latest threat to Ukraine’s coastline, residents told the Guardian they were stepping up preparations to defend it against a possible Russian sea landing, amid sightings of a convoy of Russian warships and US warnings that an amphibious assault on Odessa – Ukraine’s largest port – would be an economic disaster for Ukraine.
Residents of the town told the Guardian of a marked increase in Russian airstrikes on Wednesday as images emerged of beaches near the town covered in mines and other defenses being prepared.
Concern over a possible amphibious landing targeting Odessa intensified on Thursday following footage from a Russian naval convoy showing at least eight ships visible off the coast.
The convoy appears to include a number of large 4,080 ton Ropucha class landing ships and support vessels.
The south has seen some of Russia’s greatest military gains so far in the week-long war, with the capture of Kherson on the Dnieper paving the way for the assault on Odessa as well as to Russian forces to push north.
Describing the fall of Kherson as representing a major strategic loss for Ukraine’s defenders, Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute said Russian forces were trying to build “a land bridge” across the southern territory he suggested. which they would eventually attempt to link to the northern front around the capital Kiev.
“Kherson is very important because it is the city that controls Crimea’s water supply,” Clarke told an online briefing.
“It is also the city that is essential for crossing the Dnieper. And at some point, the Russians will want to be on both sides of the river to move up and join their northern front. Kherson is a big win for [the Russians]. It took them a while, but they’re here now.
Mykolaiv regional governor Vitaliy Kim said large convoys of Russian troops were advancing towards the city, which is another major Black Sea port and a shipbuilding center in the west.
In Kherson itself, the regional governor, Hennadiy Lahuta, admitted that Russians were in the city but added that his staff had “not abandoned our duties”. A US defense official said it was too early to say whether Russian forces had full control of Kherson.
Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev said in a Facebook post on Thursday morning that Russian troops controlled City Hall and residents had to obey a curfew imposed by what he called “armed visitors”. “.
Kolykhaiev said he made “no promises” to the Russian forces and was “interested only in the normal life of our city”. i just asked [them] not to shoot people.
Reports also emerged from Mariupol that Russian forces were trying to prevent civilians from evacuating, according to Mayor Vadym Boichenko.
Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of Mariupol, with electricity and telephone services largely cut off, and homes and shops facing food and water shortages.
Boichenko said in a video broadcast: “The invaders are systematically and methodically trying to blockade the city of Mariupol.”
As Russian troops advanced in the south, in the north of the country, a war of attrition continued around the capital Kiev where a massive Russian convoy to the northwest, which earlier in the week appeared ready to launch an assault on the capital, appeared blocked.
“Kiev withstood the night and another missile and bomb attack,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.
“Our air defenses worked,” he said. “Kherson, Izyum – all the other cities that the occupiers hit from the air gave nothing.”
In a video address to the nation on Thursday morning, Zelenskiy hailed his country’s resilience.
“We are a people who in one week destroyed the plans of the enemy,” he said. “They won’t have peace here. They won’t have food. They won’t have a single quiet moment here.
He said the fighting was hurting the morale of Russian soldiers, who “go to grocery stores and try to find something to eat”.
“They are not superpower warriors,” he said. “These are confused children who have been used.”
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the explosions heard overnight in the Ukrainian capital were Russian missiles shot down by air defense systems.