© Reuters. Ukrainian service members patrol an area in the city of Sievierodonetsk, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine June 20, 2022. Picture taken June 20, 2022. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
By Pavel Polityuk and Vitalii Hnidyi
KYIV/KHARKIV (Reuters) -Russian forces pounded Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv and surrounding countryside with rockets, killing at least 15 people, in what Kyiv called a bid to force it to pull resources from the main battlefield to protect civilians from attack.
Inside Russia, a fire tore through an oil refinery just 8 km (5 miles) from the Ukrainian border, after what the refinery described as a cross border attack by two drones.
In the main battlefield city of Sievierodonetsk, where Russia has claimed to have Ukrainian forces surrounded since last week, pictures filmed by a freelance journalist made clear the battle was not over, with Ukrainian troops able to resupply their garrison by crossing a river in inflatable rafts.
The Russian strikes on Kharkiv, throughout Tuesday and continuing on Wednesday morning, were the worst for weeks in the area where normal life had been returning since Ukraine pushed Russian forces back in a major counter-offensive last month.
“It was shelling by Russian troops. It was probably multiple rocket launchers. And it’s the missile impact, it’s all the missile impact,” Kharkiv prosecutor Mikhailo Martosh told Reuters amid the ruins of cottages struck on Tuesday in a rural area on the city’s outskirts.
Medical workers carried the body of an elderly woman out of the rubble of a burnt-out garage and into a nearby van.
“She was 85 years old. A child of the war (World War Two). She survived one war, but didn’t make it through this one,” said her grandson Mykyta. “There is nowhere to flee to. Especially grandmother herself, she didn’t want to go anywhere from here.”
Ukrainian authorities said there were reports of more casualties overnight and on Wednesday morning after 15 people were killed and 16 wounded on Tuesday in the Kharkiv region.
“Russian forces are now hitting the city of Kharkiv in the same way that they previously were hitting Mariupol – with the aim of terrorising the population,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video address.
“And if they keep doing that we will have to react — and that is one way to make us move our artillery,” he said. “The idea is to create one big problem to distract us and force us to divert troops. I think there will be an escalation.”
The main battlefield is now to the south of Kharkiv in the Donbas region, which Moscow has been trying to seize on behalf of its separatist proxies, with the worst fighting concentrated in the devastated city of Sievierodonetsk.
Ukrainian forces have largely been withstanding the Russian assault so far despite taking punishing losses, with Moscow making only slow progress using overwhelming artillery in some of the heaviest ground fighting in Europe since World War Two.
Russia says Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk are trapped. After the last bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river was destroyed last week, Moscow ordered the Ukrainians to surrender or die.
But Oleksandr Ratushniak, a freelance photographer who reached Sievierodonetsk with Ukrainian forces in recent days, filmed soldiers crossing the river in an inflatable raft, evidence that the garrison is not yet cut off.
Inside the ruins of the frontline industrial zone, the Ukrainian troops fired from a tank’s main gun. They smoked cigarettes as they hid from Russian artillery exploding outside. A dachshund scampered through the rubble.
“For us, this like digging up potatoes,” said one, describing the bombardment as a typical day of work.
There was no immediate Ukrainian comment about the apparent drone strike which suspended production at Russia’s Novoshakhtinsk oil refinery, on the Russian side of the frontier with Donbas territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Video footage posted on social media appeared to show a drone flying towards the refinery, before a large ball of flame and black smoke billowed up into the summer sky. The local emergency service, cited by Interfax, said no one was hurt and the blaze was put out.
Ukraine generally does not comment on reports of attacks on Russian infrastructure near the border. In the past it has called such incidents “karma” for Russian attacks on Ukraine.
In a separate incident, Russian authorities said four people were killed after a shell exploded at an ammunition depot deep inside Russia.
Wednesday is marked in both Russia and Ukraine as the “Day of Remembrance and Sorrow”, anniversary of the day when Hitler’s Germany attacked the Soviet Union. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died in World War Two.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin laid flowers at a memorial flame for the dead. World War Two plays a prominent role in Russian propaganda over the Ukraine invasion, which Putin calls a “special operation” to root out “Nazis”.
Kyiv and the West view that as a baseless justification for a war to restore Moscow’s rule over Ukraine and wipe out its identity as a separate nation.
“Bombed at 4:30 am. Banned the word ‘war’. Blamed other countries for aggression. Psychiatrists of the future will examine: how after building the WWII cult for years, Russia began to recreate bloody pages of the history and Nazis’ each step,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted.
“The last chapter’s name is known – tribunal.”
Moscow repeated threats on Wednesday to take unspecified retaliation for a decision by Lithuania to block rail shipments of some goods to Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea. Lithuania says it was required to block the shipments under EU sanctions that took effect on Saturday.
“We are convinced that the illegal sanctions adopted by the European Union are absolutely unacceptable in this situation,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a call with reporters, adding that countermeasures were being prepared.