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Shelling Intensifies as Ukrainians Fear Putin Has Chosen 'Grozny Option'

A man walks in front of a residential building damaged in yesterday's shelling in the city of Chernihiv on March 4, 2022.
A man walks in front of a residential building damaged in yesterday's shelling in the city of Chernihiv on March 4, 2022.

Larysa left Kharkiv three days ago with her 9-year-old daughter, and trauma is etched across her face. Her jitteriness suggests she is suffering shellshock, and she is already missing her husband who decided to stay and fight.

Her name means citadel but her high-rise apartment in Ukraine's second largest city — the scene of some of the most brutal fighting since Russia's invasion — did not feel like a fortress.

Shelling nearby and the impact of rockets and missiles rocked the building and shattered windows.

"The Russians don't care what they hit. We sheltered in the basement," the 34-year-old teacher says, as she waited Thursday to cross into Slovakia, from where she will join a grandmother living in Lithuania.

People run for cover in front of a burning house during shelling in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022.
People run for cover in front of a burning house during shelling in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022.

Her story is echoed by many others who have escaped the worst of the fighting, either to reach the relative safety of western Ukraine, which is still bracing for war to arrive, or overseas for an exile of unknowable duration.

Those under shelling now — in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, the seaport in the south of the country on the Sea of Azov that the Russians have surrounded — say the tempo and intensity of the bombardments have increased in the past day or so, causing massive damage to residential districts.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Thursday "the worst is yet to come," a judgment he made after a long phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Macron's grim prediction sends a chill of fear down the spine of Ihor, who exchanged text messages with VOA from his home in encircled Mariupol.

"The shelling never stops," he said. "We are running low on food, and it is very dangerous to go out to try to find supplies."

Contact with people in Mariupol is difficult and intermittent, with the internet and phone service going on and off. "Grozny" is on the lips of many Ukrainians in the port city, a reference to the near destruction of the Chechen capital in late 1999 to early 2000, when Putin was prime minister and in the process of succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president.

They say that vicious and intensifying shelling shows that despite what Putin reportedly told Macron — the invasion is going "according to the plan" — Russian efforts to subdue Ukraine are not working out.

That view is shared by independent military analysts, including Nigel Gould-Davies of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a defense think tank based in London. "As the situation becomes more volatile and less predictable, escalation may be the only way forward for Putin," he said in a commentary.

"Putin drastically underestimated Ukraine's cohesion and will to resist," he said, adding that the Russian president "has every incentive to end the war as quickly as possible."

"There are two ways he could do this. The first, which he has now begun to try, is to win the war through drastic escalation. But the meaning of victory is now less clear than ever. While Russia can occupy Ukraine at great human cost, no Russian puppet regime it installs will be legitimate or stable. Russia's international isolation and domestic crisis will intensify.

"The second is for Putin to scale back his goals and negotiate a peace short of regime change in Kyiv," said Gould-Davies. "But given Putin's obsession with Ukraine and the stakes he has raised; this would be a humiliating setback that he would consider only if his own regime's survival were in doubt."

The military analyst is not alone in thinking that a war of choice by Putin has potentially morphed into a war of necessity, and for his own political survival.

In the nine days of the invasion, Russian forces have managed only to seize one city so far. That's the strategically important Black Sea port of Kherson, home to 300,000 people, where Moscow claims Russian forces control government buildings as part of their effort to cut Ukraine off from the sea via its key southern ports. Russia's claims have not been confirmed.

Seizing Kherson gives Russian forces access to the mainland from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and to establish a land corridor linking Moscow's two breakaway regions in the Donbas with Crimea. It also allows Russian troops to tighten their siege of Mariupol.

Midweek, Kherson's Mayor Igor Kolykhayev confirmed Russian troops had forced their way into the city. But there are still local reports of sporadic fighting, although the local TV tower has been seized and the Russians already are broadcasting from it, say locals who have been cut off from Ukrainian channels.

Ukrainian intelligence officials say Russian troops are preparing to stage scenes of their forces being greeted as heroes, with people being moved in from Crimea as "extras."

"When Russians can't achieve real goals, they focus on fake TV coverage," tweeted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

"Having seized a TV tower in Kherson, they plan a show: Russian troops provide humanitarian aid, while fake 'locals' brought in from Crimea stage a fake 'demo' in favor of Kherson region 'uniting' with Crimea," he said.

With Kherson fallen, military strategists expect Russian forces now will turn their attention to the major port of Odesa, Ukraine's third-largest city, 100 kilometers to the west of Kherson. If they can manage to capture Odesa, Ukraine would be cut off from the Black Sea.

Up north, Russian forces are having an even tougher time and have not managed to capture a major city, but attention is focusing on what is happening with a huge armored column 30 kilometers or so north of Kyiv, which has not moved as fast as many expected.

U.S. defense officials and independent military analysts are split on why the column has moved so little for days, with some using the word "stalled" to describe its non-advance and hazarding that the Russians are running short of fuel and supplies. Others are suggesting Russian forces might be in the process of re-grouping in preparation for a major thrust on the Ukrainian capital.