Kyiv, Ukraine — More than 10,000 people have died since the Russian siege of Mariupol began, the city’s mayor told The Associated Press.
Mayor Vadym Boychenko then warned that the actual toll could be twice as high.
Reached by AP by phone on Monday, Bochenko said the city’s streets were “lined” with bodies.
He said Russian forces brought mobile crematoria to the scene to dispose of the bodies and accused them of blocking access for humanitarian convoys into the city to cover up the slaughter.
Russia said on Monday it destroyed air defense systems in Ukraine over the weekend in what appears to be a further push to gain air superiority and neutralize weapons Kyiv has described as crucial ahead of a new major offensive in the east.
The initial invasion of Moscow stalled on several fronts as it met strong resistance from Ukrainian forces, which prevented the Russians from taking the capital and other cities. Moscow’s inability to gain full control of the Ukrainian skies hampered its ability to provide air cover to ground forces, limiting their advance and likely exposing them to greater casualties.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said the military used cruise missiles to destroy four S-300 anti-aircraft missile launchers in the southern outskirts of downtown Dnipro. He added that around 25 Ukrainian soldiers were also affected by Sunday’s strike.
General Konashenkov said Ukraine received air defense systems from a European country, whose name he did not name. Last week, Slovakia announced it had handed over Soviet-designed S-300s to Ukraine, but Slovakia said it had no evidence its system had been hit.
After their advance was thwarted in many parts of the country, Russian forces increasingly relied on bombing cities. The war razed many urban areas, killing thousands and isolating Russia politically and economically. Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of committing war crimes against civilians, including a massacre outside of Kyiv, airstrikes on hospitals and a rocket attack that killed at least 57 people at a train station.
Now Russia is regrouping for a new push in the eastern region of Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces and proclaiming independent states since 2014. Both sides are preparing for a potentially devastating war of attrition.
Russia has appointed a veteran general to lead the effort, US officials say, though they don’t see a single man making a difference.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, is urging more Western aid, saying his forces need stronger firepower to withstand the coming attack and repel Russian forces. Echoing his remarks in an interview with the AP, Zelenskyy said on Sunday that the coming week could be crucial, with Western support for his country – or lack thereof – proving crucial.
“To be honest, our survivability depends on it,” Zelensky said in an interview with 60 Minutes. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that we’ll get everything we need.”
He added that he was grateful to US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders for the military assistance so far, but recalled that he “a long time ago” shared a list of specific items, including much-needed Ukraine. In a video address to South Korean lawmakers Monday, he specifically called for equipment capable of launching Russian missiles.
These weapons could come under increasing attack as Russia seeks to shift the balance in the six-week-old war.
The Russian report of the attack on the S-300 outside Dnipro was the third such attack since the weekend. General Konashenkov said that the army also attacked such systems in the Mykolayiv and Kharkiv regions. Russian military claims could not be independently verified.
Asked about Russian claims of destroying systems supplied by a European country, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said Monday he had “no evidence” that the Russians destroyed weapons supplied by his country. His government had previously described reports that the system provided by Slovakia had been attacked as “disinformation”.
Ukraine already had a number of Soviet-made S-300s and other long-range air defense systems, and it also received batches of Western shoulder-fired man-portable anti-aircraft weapons such as Stingers, which are effective against low-flying aircraft.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday after meeting Mr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. As a member of the European Union, Austria is militarily neutral and not a NATO member.
Mr Nehammer said his interactions with Mr Putin were “very direct, frank and tough”. He asked the Russian President for an immediate end to the violence.
Questions remain about the ability of the exhausted and demoralized Russian forces to gain much ground after their advance on Kyiv was repelled by determined Ukrainian defenders.
The British Ministry of Defense said on Monday that Ukraine had already repelled several attacks by Russian forces in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk – which make up Donbass – which resulted in the destruction of Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery.
In Washington, a senior US official said Russia had assigned General Alexander Dvornikov, one of its most senior military leaders, to oversee the invasion. The officer was not allowed to be identified and spoke on condition of anonymity. Russia does not usually announce such appointments, and there was no comment from Moscow.
General Dvornikov, 60, has earned a reputation for brutality as the leader of Russian forces deployed to Syria in 2015 to support President Bashar Assad’s government during the country’s devastating civil war.
So far, Russia has not had a central wartime commander on the ground. But US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan downplayed the significance of the appointment on CNN on Sunday.
“What we learned in the first few weeks of this war is that Ukraine will never be subdued by Russia,” he said. It doesn’t matter which general President Putin is trying to appoint.”
Western military analysts say Russia’s attack is increasingly focused on eastern Ukraine — an arc stretching from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the north to Kherson in the north and south.
On Sunday, Russian forces shelled government-controlled Kharkiv and sent reinforcements toward Izyum in the southeast to breach Ukraine’s defenses, the Ukrainian military said. The Russians also maintained their siege of Mariupol, a key port in southern Donbas that has been under siege almost since the war began.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synyehubov said Monday Russian shelling had killed 11 people, including a 7-year-old child, in the past 24 hours.
In Mariupol, Russia has stationed Chechen fighters who are considered particularly combative. Taking the city on the Sea of Azov would give Russia a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia had wrested from Ukraine and annexed eight years ago.
In a video published on his Telegram channel, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov warned that Russian forces would launch a new offensive on Mariupol, as well as on Kyiv and other cities. “Our offensive work will take place not only in Mariupol, but in all other settlements, towns and villages,” he said.
2/3 of Ukrainian children on the run
The UN Children’s Organization says nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children fled their homes in the six weeks following the Russian invasion, and the UN has confirmed 142 children were killed and 229 injured, although those numbers are likely far too low .
Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF director of emergency programs, who returned from Ukraine last week, told the UN Security Council on Monday that of the 3.2 million children who would have stayed at home, “almost half are at risk, not enough to eat” and that they are attacking the infrastructure of the water supply system and power outages have left an estimated 1.4 million people in the country without access to water.
He added that the situation is worse in southern cities like Mariupol and Kherson, which have been besieged by Russian forces, where children and their families have spent weeks without running water, sanitation and regular supplies of water and food.
“Hundreds of schools and educational institutions have been attacked or used for military purposes,” Mr. Fontaine denounced. Others serve as shelters for civilians.
He said the school closures had impacted the education of 5.7 million school-age children and 1.5 million college students.