Residential towers blackened and bombed. Families crowded into subway stations. Downtown streets have grown quiet, with shuttered cafes and nightclubs.
The images emerging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are a reminder of what wars often prove: cities are both key strategic targets and the places that bear the greatest costs of conflict.
Towns and villages in the path of the Russian advance were also devastated. But it is the cities, which were home to around two-thirds of Ukraine’s population of 44 million before the invasion, that are at the center of the Russian onslaught.
Today, from Kharkiv and Kiev in the north to Mariupol in the south, many women and children have fled, and urban neighborhoods are becoming battlefields. Businesses, homes, schools, cultural institutions and historic buildings are all threatened with destruction. At the same time, Ukrainian fighters mounted tougher-than-expected opposition to a superior force in the early days of the war.
Here are the main cities in Ukraine that are under attack – and what they stand to lose. Updates on the status of the Russian incursion will be added regularly.
Kharkiv: under heavy fighting
Steeped in art, literature and romance, Kharkiv is a large city close to the Russian border, making it a key military target.
About 20 miles from the northwest border between Ukraine and Russia lies Kharkiv, a city whose place in the Kremlin’s version of history made it an early target of Russian attacks.
Russian bombs devastated the downtown area of the city, including Kharkiv National University. On March 4, the city was still under Ukrainian control, despite the bombardments.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has long argued that Kharkiv’s story provides proof that Ukraine is an appendage of Russia. During and after World War I, the city served as the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, an entity largely controlled by Moscow and set up in opposition to the Ukrainian People’s Republic in Kyiv, which declared a Ukrainian state independent.
With 1.4 million people, Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city and a transport hub – a key stop on a major rail corridor, with highways linking western Ukraine and the road network Russian.
Kharkiv is home to one of the country’s first contemporary art galleries, which opened in 1996, and offers other venues of cultural significance.
It is famous for poets and writers of the Kharkiv romantic school, including Taras Shevchenko, commemorated in a monument in the city garden, one of many sculptures and monuments of cultural figures.
Kherson: Fallen into the hands of the Russian army
The city of shipbuilding is an important node for access to the Black Sea.
The port city of Kherson is in southern Ukraine, on the Dnieper River near the Black Sea. It lies about 340 miles from the capital of Kiev.
The city is a major hub for shipbuilding and provides access to Ukraine’s southern coast for invading Russian forces.
Kherson was a training ground for sea cadets and is home to major technical colleges supporting local industries including agriculture, cotton textiles and engineering.
The city has also been a backdrop for important archaeological excavationsunearthing evidence of ancient settlements through the finds of burial mounds, royal tombs and other artifacts from the third and fourth centuries.
Now the city is unrecognizable, said its mayor, Igor Kolykhaev. Days of heavy fighting left up to 300 Ukrainian civilians and fighters dead, he said. Electricity, water and gas services were damaged during the heavy bombardment of the city of around 300,000 people.
The fall of the city put the Russian army within sight of western Ukraine, towards the city of Odessa.
On March 5, for a few hours, demonstrators gathered in Freedom Square in the city center, the most visible example to date of resistance to the Russian occupation.
Kiev: the Russians are closing in, encountering strong resistance
Once a destination among revelers and tourists admiring Ukrainian Baroque architecture, the country’s capital is the most important territorial and political target of the war.
Just a few months ago, Kyiv was a well-kept secret among pandemic revelers, the scene of a bustling underground nightlife and a popular draw among tourists passing through Eastern European metropolises.
Today, the Ukrainian capital is besieged.
City of 2.8 million inhabitants before the war, Kiev is the political, cultural and industrial center of the country. The city has several important historical and architectural monuments including the Saint Sophia Cathedral, which is now a museum. Built in the 11th century, it is considered one of the world’s finest examples of ancient Rus’-Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture.
Kiev is the most important territorial target for Russia and is surrounded by Russian troops. A 40-mile-long column of Russian armored and military vehicles lined up northwest of the city. From there, Russian troops fire rockets into the city.
On March 1, Kiev’s main radio and television tower was hit by a projectile. There were other explosions nearby, killing at least five people. As of March 4, most fighting was still taking place in towns outside the city.
Power and communications continue to operate, for the most part, as well as train lines, but schools and most businesses have closed.
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Tens of thousands of people have fled Kyiv, heading west to Lviv and then to Poland or other destinations in Europe, even as refugees from pitched battle areas in the west have more recently begun to flock.
Mariupol: under heavy bombardment
Strategically located between a separatist enclave and Crimea, Mariupol’s coastline, once a major tourist attraction, is a key target for Russian forces.
Mariupol lies along the shallowest sea in the world, the Azov. Before the war, its coastline served as a backdrop for tourists – and for earlier tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
It lies between the Donbass region, controlled by Russian-backed separatists, and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Since it is also less than 40 miles from the Russian border, Mariupol has was hit hard early on, suffering more than many other Ukrainian cities in the first phase of the Russian invasion.
Heavy Russian bombardment cut off electricity, water and heating. Russia and Ukraine agreed to a limited “ceasefire” on Saturday morning only to see it crumble within hours under Russian bombardment.
If Russia takes over the region, Ukraine will lose key industrial infrastructure and Russia will gain a clear path for President Putin to take control of the Sea of Azov, a passageway for Ukrainian agricultural products and other exports such as coal and steel.
In 1948, when the Soviet Union ruled Ukraine, the city was renamed for Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanova high rank Communist Party official who was born there. The city’s old name, Mariupol, was restored in 1989 when Soviet rule faded towards the end of the Cold War.
Today, many buildings in the city bear the burn marks of Russian artillery.
Mykolaiv: Ukrainian forces fight to maintain control
Located on a creek, the shipbuilding city is a springboard for Russia’s military advance towards Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city.
Mykolaiv’s strategic location on an entrance to the Black Sea made it a key battleground in Russia’s efforts to capture Ukraine’s southern coast and cut off the country’s access to the sea. After seizing the nearby city of Kherson, Russia turned its forces to Mykolaiv, one of the last obstacles to the Russian push westward, and to Odessa, a major economic and cultural center.
Founded under the Russian Empire in the late 18th century as a shipyard, Mykolaiv housed the Russian Black Sea Fleet for decades and served as a military-industrial complex for the empire. After the end of World War II, the city flourished as one of the major shipbuilding centers of the Soviet Union and later became a key port for the Ukrainian military fleet.
For several days, Mykolaiv has been the scene of a fierce battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Ukrainian troops defended the city on several fronts, facing punitive artillery barrages, helicopter attacks and rocket fire.
By Sunday, they had pushed Russian forces back from the city limits and recaptured the airport. But the assault resumed on Monday with a fierce artillery attack that hit civilian neighborhoods with rocket fire.
Until just a few days ago, the city’s approximately 500,000 residents could still enjoy the scenic nature surrounding Mykolaiv, including granite mountains, crystal clear lakes and canyons. But now most residents seem to have fled.
To reach Odessa by the easiest route, Russian forces will have to cross Mykolaiv and cross a key drawbridge which is still under the control of Ukrainian troops.
If the troops fail to stop the Russian advance, Mykolaiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich said they have orders to blow up the bridge.
Michael Schwirtz contributed to reporting from Odessa, Richard Perez-Pena from Los Angeles, Andre Higgins from Warsaw, Constant Méheut from Paris, Damien Cave from Sydney and Vjosa Isai of Toronto.