Russian forces in Ukraine moved to tighten their siege of key cities, including the capital, Kyiv, and the southern port of Mariupol, as one mayor told residents he had been given an ultimatum to surrender or the city would be razed by shelling.
At an outdoor meeting Artem Semenikhin, the mayor of Konotop, in the eastern Sumy region, told residents: “They have given us an ultimatum. If we start resisting, they’ll wipe out the town using artillery.”
“If you are for it, we’ll fight,” Semenikhin is heard telling a crowd of residents. “Who votes to fight?” he shouts as residents shout back, insisting they will resist.
Amid renewed heavy shelling, the mayor of Kharkiv, also in the country’s east, said he had no intention of surrendering.
With shortages of food already biting and mounting concerns over the ability of hospitals to function in besieged areas, some western officials privately began raising fears that Russian forces would use the same tactics as those used against civilian populations during the Chechen and Syria wars, which involved scorched-earth tactics.
Officials and defenders in the southern port of Mariupol on Wednesday became the latest city to say they were surrounded, with Russian troops shelling civilian sites, including residential blocks, hospitals and dormitories for people displaced by fighting.
One soldier in the city, reached by the Guardian, said it was clear Russian forces were attempting to encircle and besiege them.
“Right now there is active fighting for the city and it is only accessible to one side. There’s constant shelling,” he said, adding he was being moved to the frontline.
“We believe they want do the same to Mariupol as they are doing to Kyiv and Kharkiv. They are trying to encircle us and wipe us out with artillery. They want to kill civilians and damage civilian infrastructure. That’s what we need to stop them doing.”
“They have been flattening us non-stop for 12 hours now,” the Mariupol mayor, Vadym Boichenko, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying. “We cannot even take the wounded from the streets, from houses and apartments today, since the shelling does not stop.”
In Kyiv, which is also encircled by Russian forces, , the mayor, Vitali Klitschko, wrote in an online post on Wednesday. “We are preparing and will defend Kyiv! Kyiv stands and will stand.”
The shift in tactics follows a Pentagon assessment that Russia has begun pivoting to crude siege tactics around a number of cities since the beginning of the week amid fears that they may include shutting off access to supplies for trapped civilian populations with Moscow’s strategy in Chechnya and Syria – where it used artillery and air bombardments to pulverise cities – being seen as a model.
Adding to those fears Britain’s Ministry of Defence said it had seen an increase in Russian air and artillery strikes on populated urban areas over the past two days.
Commenting on the move to besiege cities, Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute told the Guardian the new approach suggested both failures in Russian intelligence in the run-up to the invasion and failures of Russians tactics as the invasion first began.
“It appears that Putin was advised that this would be much easier than it has been and the Russians have made a number of mistakes early on.
“While there have been a lot of issues with this operation including problems with logistics and air support what the Russian armed forces are good at is artillery and missile fire, which is why we are seeing a move to siege tactics.
“But both options have issues. If they have to go block to block fighting, that will be difficult and they will take casualties. Even in Iraq when very well coordinated Iraqi forces went into Mosul [against Islamic State] backed by Nato air support, it was very slow. And every day that passes gives the Ukrainian defenders more time to dig in.
“If they shell from outside the cities in the hope they will surrender that has significant consequences for the civilian populations inside.”
US defence officials noted the same changes in tactics, saying that Russian forces were “regrouping” and making more use of a multiple rocket-launch system that can employ unguided cluster munitions and thermobaric rounds.
Echoing that view, Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a Virginia-based thinktank, told the Washington Post: “I’m seeing reorganisation. They’re coalescing into larger units, they’re pulling up logistics and they’re starting to use more artillery and air power.”
Commenting on the change in Russian tactics, Ukraine’s president, Voldomyr Zelenskiy, said the escalation of attacks on crowded area amounted to “terror”.
“Nobody will forgive. Nobody will forget,” he vowed after Tuesday’s bloodshed on the central square in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and the deadly bombing of a TV tower in the capital. He called the attack on the square a “frank, undisguised terror” and a war crime.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism