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'Does Putin Want To Kill Us All?' Kharkiv Civilians Under Siege As Russia Changes Tactics

A mother holds her crying daughter after their arrival by train from Kharkiv at the main train station in the western city of Lviv on March 4.

With Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in tough fighting for control of major cities across Ukraine, Moscow has shifted its tactics to increasingly rely on rockets, artillery, and air attacks to hit civilian infrastructure.

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For Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city located in the country's northeast, this has meant an increasingly indiscriminate campaign that has seen civilians caught in the shelling of their homes, as rockets and artillery have rained down on supermarkets, schools, hospitals, apartment blocks, and churches.

Despite the heavy attacks, the predominantly Russian-speaking city is still under Ukrainian control, though many of Kharkiv's 1.5 million residents have fled. Those who have stayed describe increasingly grim conditions that are difficult to escape.

"No [escape routes] have been made yet, but people are trying to leave," Irina Evsa, a well-known Ukrainian poet and Kharkiv resident, told North.Realities on March 4.

Taxi drivers in the city are unwilling to take people to the train station to leave the city out of fear of taking fire, she said, and trains out of Kharkiv are not operating on a set schedule, making it difficult to plan an escape from the besieged city.

"It's very scary to come to the station and not go anywhere because you [might] have to get back home [quickly] and there is shelling all the time," Evsa said. "What does [Russian President Vladimir] Putin want -- to kill us all? Destroy everything? I don't understand the purpose [of this war]."

WATCH: Dramatic dashcam footage captured what appeared to be a mortar attack at an intersection in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on February 25.

Car Barely Dodges Attack In Kharkiv
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Changing Tactics

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed and thousands of others have been wounded since Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine, the country's emergency service have said.

Ukrainian and Western forces say they believe Moscow is shifting tactics to a new strategy of pummeling civilian areas to try and demoralize Ukrainian resistance and reignite Russia's stagnant military advance. "Given the slowing down of the offensive and the resistance of the Ukrainians, Russia is changing its tactics," Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said in a March 5 statement.

Kharkiv's Freedom Square, the center of the city's public life, was hit by what Ukrainian officials say was a Russian cruise missile. Other cities in Ukraine's east are also the sites of intense fighting and are seeing their residential areas come under intense shelling as they are encircled by Russian forces.

The area near the regional administration building in Kharkiv, which city officials said was hit by a missile strike.
The area near the regional administration building in Kharkiv, which city officials said was hit by a missile strike.

Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, a city of 150,000 in southeastern Ukraine that is under Russian military control but still has fighting on its outskirts, told Current Time on March 4 the city faced food and water shortages and he was negotiating with Russian military commanders to allow civilians to be evacuated and supplies to be brought in. "The situation is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe if the fighting is not stopped and humanitarian corridors are not opened," he said.

For those who have managed to flee Kharkiv, many describe panic, fear, and shock.

Kharkiv, which is only about 45 kilometers from the Russian border, has strong economic, cultural, and family ties to Russia.

The square outside the headquarters of the Kharkiv administration after it was shelled on March 1.
The square outside the headquarters of the Kharkiv administration after it was shelled on March 1.

In launching an invasion into Ukraine, the Kremlin has said its demands for ending the war consist of Ukraine recognizing the 2014 annexation by Russia of its Crimean Peninsula, declaring neutrality, demilitarizing, and the country undergoing "de-Nazification."

Putin has accused the Ukrainian government of being beholden to far-right, neo-Nazi elements -- despite President Volodymyr Zelenskiy being Jewish -- and has also cited alleged discrimination against Ukraine's Russian-speakers as one of his reasons for the conflict.

"My father is Ukrainian, I am half-Russian, my mother is Russian. I did not expect such disgrace from my native people, from Russians. It's horrible," a Kharkiv resident told Current Time on March 5 after fleeing the city amid intense shelling.

Alleged War Crimes

As the Kharkiv offensive started ramping up, International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan announced he had launched an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine.

During a late-night address on February 28, Zelenskiy referred to Russia's relentless bombardment of Kharkiv, including the deliberate targeting of residential areas, as a "war crime."

Some 39 countries have so far backed the call to hold Russia to account at the ICC and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has also thrown his support behind a separate move for the establishment of a special international tribunal to try Russia's leaders for the crime of aggression against Ukrainians, he said on March 4 via video link to an event at London's Chatham House.

"We are fighting against an enemy that is much stronger than us," Kuleba said. "But international law is on our side and hopefully it will make its own contribution to help us prevail. The question now is how the international community will respond."

Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's North.Realities and Current Time