What Happened on Day 54 of the War in Ukraine
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukraine said Monday that Russian forces had launched a ground assault along a nearly 300-mile front in the east after hitting the country with one of the most intense missile barrages in weeks, including the first lethal strike on Lviv, the western city that has been a refuge for tens of thousands of fleeing civilians.
The missile strikes, which killed at least seven people in Lviv alone, punctured any illusions that the picturesque city of cobbled streets and graceful squares near Poland’s border was still a sanctuary from the horrors Russia has inflicted elsewhere in Ukraine over the past two months.
The Lviv attack followed 300 missile and artillery strikes that Russia claimed to have carried out, mainly in the east, in what appeared to be a campaign to terrorize the population and intimidate Ukraine’s military before the new ground offensive had begun in the part of the country known as the Donbas.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on national television that the Russian ground assault, which had been anticipated for weeks, stretched along nearly the entire front line, from the northern Kharkiv region south to the besieged port of Mariupol .
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said, “A very significant part of the Russian army is now concentrated for that offensive,” adding, “No matter how many servicemen get thrown there, we will fight, we will defend ourselves.”
The overnight missile barrage targeted fuel depots, warehouses and other infrastructure, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. Russian forces also appeared to be finally seizing the entire port of Mariupol, where outnumbered Ukrainian fighters defied demands to lay down their weapons at a vast steel plant that has become a kind of industrial Alamo.
Mariupol, an once-vibrant city in southeast Ukraine, is the last obstacle to Russia’s drive to secure a “land bridge” to Crimea, the southern Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russian forces eight years ago.
The intensified attacks came amid signs that international sanctions were beginning to choke Russia’s economy — and in the process, opening fissures between the country’s leaders. President Vladimir V. Putin insisted that “the strategy of an economic blitzkrieg has failed.” But Moscow’s mayor warned that 200,000 people risked losing their jobs in the capital alone, while the head of the central bank warned that the effect of Russia’s isolation was just starting to be felt.
While Ukraine’s east remained the focus of Russia’s recalibrated military ambitions, the strike on Lviv was a lethal reminder that no Ukrainian city, even one scarcely 50 miles from the Polish border, lies outside the range of Moscow’s rockets.
Gray smoke billowed from what remained of the red roof of a long concrete garage on the city’s western outskirts, a sign outside advertising “carwash” and “tire replacement.” A hole in the roof indicated that the building had taken a direct hit from a missile. Air raid sirens wailed continuously as firefighters struggled to extinguish the flames and ambulances ferried away from the wounded.
While the garage burned, a train rumbled by toward Lviv’s nearby railway station, carrying passengers fleeing the fighting in the eastern city of Dnipro. It stopped briefly and the train’s conductors and other workers tried to reassure anxious passengers as they started hearing about the airstrikes by phone.
“It was panic,” said Anna Khrystiuk, a volunteer who was handing out information to displaced people, several of whom ran to a shelter in the station when the missiles hit. “Many people were from Kharkiv and other places and they were so afraid of rockets already. They thought that it was safe to stay here.”
In Kharkiv, a northeastern city shelled relentlessly since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a fresh artillery strike killed at least one person in a residential area. The victim was standing a few yards from an apartment building that was struck. It came after a concerted missile barrage on Sunday killed at least five people in the city’s center.
“It was the first time this neighborhood was hit,” said Lubov Ustymenko, 72, who wore a winter coat and stood a few yards from a discarded umbrella and a puddle filled with a mix of blood and the morning’s light rain. “Our life is decided in one second — you go outside, and then you’re gone.”
Russia’s ground onslaught — a push to seize more of the Donbas — got underway after weeks of setbacks, including Russia’s retreat from areas surrounding the capital, Kyiv, and the sinking of a major Russian warship in the Black Sea.
Having failed in the early weeks of the war to destroy the Ukrainian military’s network of fuel and ammunition depots — perhaps under the erroneous assumption that Ukrainian forces would surrender wholesale — Russia has intensified its attacks against those facilities, as well as against transportation infrastructure.
But Russia’s puzzling failure to do so earlier has left its forces with costly unfinished business, and given Ukrainian troops an unexpected advantage. Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst, said that while Russia has hit railway facilities, so far it has avoided aiming missiles at bridges over big rivers.
“If Russia plans to expand its presence on Ukraine’s territory — and the end goal since 2014 has been the destruction of Ukrainian statehood as such — it would need the railway too,” Mr. Luzin said.
Besides targeting Kharkiv, Russian forces have unleashed further destruction on eastern cities like Mykolaiv, which lies in Russia’s pathway to the Black Sea port of Odesa. Those attacks have tied up Ukrainian forces and prevented them from joining the fight farther east, while sowing terror among civilians after Russia failed to conquer these cities early in the war.
In Mariupol, devastated by weeks of siege warfare, a band of Ukrainian fighters remained unknown in the Azovstal steel plant after having rejected Russian demands to surrender. Russia intensified its bombing of the factory, and it was unclear how long the Ukrainians could endure in the plant’s labyrinthine underground tunnels. Officials on both sides said Russia could control the city soon.
Even with much of Mariupol now a wasteland, the city’s capture would represent a key strategic prize for Russia and would free up forces for its Donbas offensive.
Still, British defense intelligence officials said the grinding battle for the city has become a source of anxiety for Russian commanders.
“Concerted Ukrainian resistance has severely tested Russian forces and diverted men and materiel, slowing Russia’s advance elsewhere,” said Mick Smeath, a British defense attaché. He likened Russia’s treatment of Mariupol to its brutal tactics in Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016.
After two months of fighting, pro-war commentators in Russia are pushing the army for tangible military victories that would cover up some of the embarrassments Moscow has suffered, including the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Kremlin’s Black Sea fleet, and the retreat from around Kyiv. So far, Russia has been able to claim only the capture of Kherson, a regional capital, as a significant battlefield achievement.
On Russia’s state-run television, commentators have enthusiastically promoted the Donbas offensive as a decisive battle that could be a turning point in the war. Many point toward May 9, the commemoration of Russia’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, as the date when Mr. Putin could claim a semblance of victory in Ukraine.
“The big battle for the Donbas has already started,” said Yuri Podolyaka, a pro-Russia analyst who publishes military reports on his popular channel on Telegram. “The activity of the Russian artillery and air forces has intensified again.”
On Monday, the head of the regional administration in Luhansk, which is part of the Donbas, said that Russian forces had gained control of the town of Kreminna, adding to territory in the region held by Moscow.
Still, those scattered Russian advances carry less psychological punch than lethal strikes on Lviv, a city that has become a critical gateway to safety for the millions of Ukrainians who have fled westward, trying to escape the worst of the fighting. In late February, it was quickly repurposed from a charming tourist destination into a base of operations for a vast relief effort, serving as a channel for humanitarian supplies, aid workers, foreign fighters making their way to frontline cities and many foreign journalists.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have passed through the city’s train and bus stations. For many others, it is a new — if floating — home. Lviv, which had about 720,000 residents before the war began, has since welcomed at least 350,000 people displaced from other parts of the country.
Until Monday, the only direct targets that had been hit in Lviv were a fuel storage site and tank facility in the city’s northeast, hit by several missile strikes about three weeks earlier. Before that, a pair of attacks targeted an airport facility and a military base near Lviv, killing at least 35 people.
In Monday’s strike, three missiles hit empty military warehouses while a fourth hit the garage, according to the head of Lviv’s military administration, Maksym Koztyskyy. He did not say whether all the casualties were from the strike on the garage. Besides the seven killed, he said 11 people were injured — a toll that could rise as rescue workers cleared rubble from the site. The missiles, Mr. Koztyskyy said, had been launched by warplanes from the direction of the Caspian Sea.
Orest Maznin, a police officer, said he had been driving to work past the garage when the missiles struck, and he narrowly escaped shrapnel. The windshield of his car had a large hole from the impact of a piece of metal.
“It happened too quickly for me to be afraid,” Mr. Maznin said.
Jane Arraf reported from Lviv, Ukraine, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Mark Landler from London. Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkiv, Ukraine, Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, and Anton Troianovski and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul.