Russia targeting cities as strength of Ukraine’s resistance ‘continues to surprise’, UK says

The strength of Ukraine’s resistance “continues to surprise’ Russia,” a British intelligence report has said, despite attempts by invading troops to break Ukrainian morale by targeting populated areas.

In its daily intelligence report, the ministry of defence said Russia had responded to the unexpected ferocity of the Ukrainian military response by targeting cities such as Kharkiv, Chirnihiv and Mariupol.

It used similar tactics in Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016, employing both air and ground-based munitions.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it is targeting civilian areas.

The intelligence report said there was a “realistic possibility” that Russia was “attempting to conceal fuel trucks as regular support trucks in an effort to conceal losses”. Its supply lines reportedly continue to be targeted, slowing the rate of the advance of their ground forces.”

The Ukrainian military said its forces had been “fighting fierce battles to maintain certain borders” in its daily operational report, as US president Joe Biden discussed increased US support with the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The report claimed Russian troops had been “demoralised” and were in an “extremely low moral and psychological state” due to the resistance of the Ukrainian people, the general staff of the armed forces said.

The report mentions “heavy losses in weapons, equipment and personnel” alongside the losses of 88 Russian aircraft and helicopters.

“Some enemy pilots who catapulted and survived were found by Ukrainian soldiers. They have received medical treatment and are already testifying about the Putin regime’s crimes against humanity,” it said.

Earlier, Biden discussed speeding up US military, humanitarian and economic support for Ukraine in a call with Zelenskiy, as reports warned that the number of refugees fleeing the conflict could soon reach 1.5 million.

Biden and Zelenskiy spoke for more than 30 minutes, according to the White House, hours after Russian president Vladimir Putin warned that measures designed to cripple his country’s economy were “akin to an act of war”.

Zelenskiy said on Twitter that he and Biden had discussed security, financial support for Ukraine and the continuation of sanctions against Russia. The White House said Biden had emphasised steps his administration and allies have taken “to raise the costs on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine”.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, briefly stepped on to Ukrainian territory for a meeting with the country’s foreign minister, Dymtro Kuleba, who predicted Russia would be defeated but appealed for more military assistance.

Kuleba said he expected new sanctions and weapons for Ukraine in coming days. Washington has said it would give Ukraine more weapons and has repeatedly warned it could further punish the Russian economy, with Biden seeking $10 bn in emergency funding to respond to the crisis.

On a day in which Zelenskiy continued to call on the west to strengthen its economic response to the invasion with a ban on Russian oil, fears grew over the exodus of civilians fleeing Russian forces.

The World Health Organization said 249 civilians had been killed sofar and 553 injured as of 3 March. It put the number of refugees at 1.2 million and said another 160,000 people had been internally displaced.

“The human cost is likely much higher as access and security challenges make it difficult to verify the actual number of deaths and injuries,” it said in a statement.

An unsourced report from Reuters in Lviv and Kyiv said the number of refugees was expected to reach 1.5 million on Sunday, 11 days after the invasion began.

Sunday also saw an intervention by China, whose intentions towards Taiwan – which is considers a “renegade” province – are being closely watched in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, told Blinken that Beijing opposed any moves that would “add fuel to the flames” in Ukraine. Wang called for negotiations to resolve the immediate crisis, adding that the US and Europe should acknowledge the negative impact of Nato’s eastward expansion on Russia’s security. Blinken said the world is acting in unison in response to Russian aggression and ensuring that Moscow will pay a high price.

Russian forces continued to focus on Kyiv while moving ahead with assaults on Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and the creation of a land corridor with Crimea, the Ukrainian military said. It said aircraft from airports in Belarusian territory were involved in airstrikes on military and civilian infrastructure in Kyiv and Zhytomyr.

Russia also dropped powerful bombs on residential areas of Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv, according to a regional official. Vyacheslav Chaus posted a photo of what he said was an undetonated FAB-500, a Soviet-designed 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) air-dropped bomb of the kind usually used against military-industrial facilities and fortified structures.

But Russian hopes of a swift victory have been frustrated, as Ukrainian resistance continued over the weekend. Ukraine’s military claims 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, while Moscow puts the figure at 500. The Ukrainian defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said 66,224 Ukrainians living abroad had returned home to fight – the equivalent of 12 brigades. ‘“Ukrainians, we are invincible!” he said.

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While Ukraine’s allies have resisted Zelenskiy’s calls for a ban on Russian oil and the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, pressure on Russia’s financial system intensified after Mastercard and Visa said they would suspend their operations in the country.

Mastercard said cards issued by Russian banks will no longer be supported by its network and any card issued outside the country will not work at Russian stores or ATMs. Visa said it was working with clients and partners in Russia to cease all transactions over the coming days.

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, is to launch an “international plan of action” in response to the invasion, and will urge other leaders to endorse it in efforts to ensure Russia fails in its attempt to take over Ukraine.

Johnson’s proposal does not involve western allies engaging in military action with Russia, but states that Ukraine’s allies must inflict maximum economic pain” on Moscow.

“It is not enough to express our support for the rules-based international order – we must defend it against a sustained attempt to rewrite the rules by military force,” Johnson said in a statement.

A third round of talks between Ukraine and Russia will be held on Monday, Ukrainian official Davyd Arakhamia said on Saturday, as the two sides try to negotiate a ceasefire and safe passage corridors for civilians.