Russia escalated attacks on Ukrainian cities Wednesday as the two sides claimed control of a strategic city and expressed a willingness to resume talks aimed at ending the nearly week-old war.
Moscow said it had seized "complete control” of Kherson, a port city of a quarter-million people on the Black Sea, a claim that was disputed by Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych.
However, Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhayev said there were Russian troops on the city's streets.
"There were armed visitors in the city executive committee today," he said in a statement, according to a Reuters report. "My team and I are peaceful people -- we had no weapons and there was no aggression from our side."
"I didn't make any promises to them ... I just asked them not to shoot people," he said in a statement, according to Reuters.
If the claim is true, it would be the first sizable city to fall during the weeklong invasion.
The most intensive airstrikes hit the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and home to 1.5 million people. An attack destroyed a building housing the police department in the city’s center, further reducing it to an area of ruined buildings and debris.
Ukrainian authorities said Russian attacks killed 21 people in Kharkiv on Tuesday and four more Wednesday morning.
Heavy shelling also continued in the southern port city of Mariupol, where the wounded were unable to evacuate, according to the city’s mayor.
Ukraine’s emergency agency said Russia’s attacks have killed more than 2,000 people across the country. But nearly a week after the invasion started, Russia had not overthrown Ukraine’s government.
Russia’s defense ministry put out its first casualties report, saying 498 of its troops were killed in Ukraine, while more than 1,500 others were wounded.
Even though hours of talks Monday with Russian officials yielded no resolution on Ukraine’s demands for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Russian forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again called for a halt in fighting to give negotiations a chance.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said a Russian delegation would be ready to resume talks, while a Ukraine spokesperson told reporters that “our delegation will be in place to await Ukrainian negotiators.” Reports say talks could be held Thursday.
"It's necessary to at least stop bombing people, just stop the bombing and then sit down at the negotiating table," Zelenskyy told Reuters and CNN in a joint interview in a heavily guarded government compound in Kyiv.
U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia's efforts to move on key Ukrainian cities, including the capital of Kyiv, have made little to no progress in the past 24 hours.
A senior U.S. defense official briefing reporters Wednesday on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the intelligence said that Russian forces trying to take Kyiv are "stalled outside the city center."
The forces, including a massive Russian convoy, have made "no appreciable movement," the official said, adding Russian advances on other key cities, such as Chernihiv and Kharkiv have also stalled.
U.S. intelligence also suggested Russian forces currently moving to surround the city of Mariupol would face a tough fight there as well.
Meanwhile, shipments of defensive aid continue to arrive, according to U.S. officials, who said deliveries have been made in just the last day.
U.S. officials declined to comment on casualties, either civilian casualties or casualties among the Ukrainian and Russian forces, though the senior defense official cautioned the world should be "extremely skeptical of any information the Russian Ministry of Defense puts out there."
The Pentagon on Wednesday also expressed concerns that Russian forces are getting more aggressive in their targeting, putting civilians and civilian infrastructure in greater danger.
The senior defense official said the U.S. assesses that since the invasion began last Thursday, Russia has launched more than 450 missiles, but that Ukraine’s air and missile defense systems remain viable.
The official said the lack of Russian progress around Kyiv, despite its superior firepower, could be attributed to a number of factors, including ongoing shortages of fuel and food, and a spirited defense by Ukrainian forces.
"It has slowed because of resistance from the Ukrainians that has been effective and quite creative," the official said. "They have marshaled their assets quite well. … The will to fight is very strong, in terms of their armed forces but also in terms of their civilian population."
"We also believe they [Russia] have had morale problems that has led to less than effective operational success," the official added, cautioning that U.S. intelligence expects Russian forces will adapt in order to continue with the massive assault.
The Pentagon also announced that it is postponing a nuclear missile test launch scheduled for this week. The decision comes days after Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to put his nuclear forces on higher alert.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the decision to delay the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was made by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Kirby added that the U.S. would like to see Moscow reciprocate by “taking the temperature down” in the crisis over Ukraine.
Another factor that may be helping the Ukrainians is continued support from NATO and the U.S.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is imposing sweeping sanctions on Russia’s defense sector.
"In total, 22 Russian defense-related entities will be designated, including companies that make combat aircraft, infantry fighting vehicles, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, electronic warfare systems – the very systems now being used to assault the Ukrainian people, abuse human rights, violate international humanitarian law,” Blinken said during a press conference.
Blinken said the U.S. would also “choke off Belarus’ ability to import key technologies” by imposing export controls on Belarus “to hold the Lukashenka regime accountable for being a co-belligerent in President (Vladimir) Putin’s war of choice.”
The top U.S. diplomat is leaving Thursday for a trip to Belgium, Poland, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to continue extensive consultations and coordination with NATO allies and European partners.
“We’re keeping the door open to a diplomatic way forward,” Blinken said. “If Russia pulls back and pursues diplomacy, we stand ready to do the same thing.”
In Poland, Blinken will discuss further security and humanitarian assistance to help refugees who have fled Ukraine.
Economic pressure on Russia is also increasing, and President Joe Biden said “nothing is off the table” when a reporter asked Wednesday outside the White House if the U.S. would ban Russian oil and gas.
In addition to sanctions that have directly targeted Russia’s banking system and figures close to Russian President Putin, many companies have stopped their Russian operations in response to the invasion.
The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday that at least 1 million people, most of them women and children, had fled Ukraine to neighboring countries since Thursday. It said it expects 4 million people could eventually flee Ukraine.
VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching, national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb, correspondent Jamie Dettmer, Islamabad Bureau Chief Heather Murdock and White House correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.