Russian troops and armored vehicles advanced into Kyiv’s northern suburbs on Friday as the city’s population was urged to take up arms, threatening to surge in violence as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shifts to urban warfare.
An advance by the Russian military supported by cruise missile strikes and special forces assaults during the first 24 hours of the invasion brought troops into Kyiv on Friday morning, forcing many of its 3mn inhabitants to seek shelter.
“We should be very fearful of high levels of violence in Kyiv,” said a senior western intelligence official, warning of “an incredibly brutal and lethal suppression campaign” in the capital, as residents reported the sounds of explosions around the city.
Russian troops and armored vehicles rolled into the residential district of Obolon on Friday, less than 15km from Kyiv’s center, as Moscow said its troops had “blocked Kyiv. . . from the west ”. The claim could not be independently verified.
Moscow is pushing for a rapid seizure of the capital, which has been the core initial objective of its invasion, alongside a sustained assault on Ukrainian army positions in the east of the country.
Ukraine’s defense ministry called on residents of northern Kyiv to “make Molotov cocktails, neutralize the occupier”, while Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said 18,000 submachine guns were being distributed to citizens in the capital.
If Russian troops are able to secure the north of Kyiv, it would allow access to the capital for columns of significant reinforcements traveling south from Belarus, analysts have said.
Western intelligence officials have warned that the encirclement of Kyiv by “overwhelming” Russian force could be achieved in a matter of days, raising the prospect of an intense assault on the city in an effort to force the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender.
“The city has gone into a defensive phase. Shots and explosions are ringing out in some neighborhoods, saboteurs have already entered Kyiv, ”Vitali Klitschko, the city’s mayor, said on Friday.
“The enemy wants to put the capital on its knees and destroy us,” the former boxing champion told reporters, as warning sirens blared across the city.
Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, predicted that “next week is likely to be horrendous, as Russian forces push into cities and killing increases.”
But, he continued, “if Russia is not able to crush the resistance [then the] conflict will protract. Moscow may have miscalculated about that: if you put people under sustained bombardment the will to resist rises. ”
Residents of Obolon have been ordered to remain in their homes or seek shelter. “Going outside is very dangerous now due to the approach of the enemy,” Kyiv’s city administration said in a statement.
Traffic was heavy on roads leading out of the capital on Friday morning, while people and families could be seen walking away from the center with suitcases as some tried to hail rides from passing cars.
A western military official told the Financial Times that if Russian troops went into Kyiv, street by street fighting would be intense and “many Russian soldiers will feel very demoralized by finding themselves killing people just like them.”
“I am pretty sure Putin doesn’t want Zelensky alive. We’re dealing here with a gangland boss who doesn’t operate like a conventional statesman, “the official said. “Putin would like to suggest that there is an equivalence between Zelensky and, say, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But that’s clearly absurd. “
Ukrainian forces destroyed bridges north of Kyiv overnight in an attempt to impede the Russian advance, while fierce fighting by special forces from both countries over Hostomel airport, north-east of the city, had stymied Russia’s efforts on Thursday to land troop-carrying aircraft there .
Russia said on Friday afternoon it had captured the airport, and also claimed it had “disabled” 118 military facilities – including 11 airfields – nationwide, shot down five Ukrainian jets and destroyed 18 tanks.
Russian forces in the east are also attempting to take control of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and have shelled Odessa, a large Black Sea port. The capture of Kharkiv, 30km from the Russian border, would open up the eastern approach to Kyiv.
“I find it hard to believe that Moscow was so uninformed about Ukraine that it expected no resistance,” said Henry Boyd, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “We are only 36 hours into hostilities so it’s very early stages and from past experience half of what is reported turns out to be wrong.”
“There’s been a lot of focus on the Kyiv airport,” he added. “It may well be that there are more significant developments taking place elsewhere that we can’t see, perhaps because of electronic warfare jamming electronic communications.”
Additional reporting by John Reed and Polina Ivanova in Kyiv