Ukrainian forces have fought to repel Russian attempts to advance in the south and east, where the Kremlin seeks to capture the Donbass industrial region, and a senior US defense official said Moscow’s offensive is going much slower than expected.
As artillery fire, sirens and explosions were heard Friday in some towns, the United Nations sought to negotiate an evacuation of civilians from the increasingly hellish ruins of Mariupol, where the mayor said the situation inside the steel mill that has become the last port city in the south the fortress is disastrous.
Citizens are “begging to be saved”, Mayor Vadym Boichenko said. “There, it’s not a matter of days. It’s a matter of hours.”
In other developments:
- A former US Marine was killed while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, his family said, in what would be the first known death of an American in combat. The United States has not confirmed the report.
- The mayor of the eastern Ukrainian town of Popasna, Nikolai Khanatov, said two buses traveling there to evacuate residents were fired upon and contact with the drivers was lost.
- Ukrainian forces are cracking down on people accused of helping Russian troops. In the Kharkiv region alone, nearly 400 people were detained under anti-collaboration laws enacted after the February 24 invasion of Moscow.
- International sanctions imposed on the Kremlin during the war compress the country. The Russian Central Bank said the Russian economy is expected to contract by up to 10% this year, and the outlook is “extremely uncertain”.
Only minor gains for Russia
Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in the east has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have also introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But so far, Russian troops and separatist forces appear to have made only minor gains.
Partly because of the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, the United States believes that the Russians are “at least several days behind what they wanted to be” as they attempt to surround Ukrainian troops at the is,” said the senior US defense official, who spoke conditionally. from anonymity to discuss the U.S. military’s assessment.
As Russian troops attempt to move north out of Mariupol so they can advance on Ukrainian forces from the south, their progress has been “slow and uneven and certainly not decisive”, the official said.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense offered a similar assessment, saying it believed Russian forces in Ukraine were likely suffering from “weakened morale”, as well as a lack of unit-level skills and intelligence. “inconsistent air support”.
Russian forces have “been forced to merge and redeploy exhausted and disparate units from failed advances in northeastern Ukraine,” the ministry said in a tweet on Saturday as part of a daily war report. . She did not specify on what basis she made the assessment.
100,000 people believed trapped in Mariupol
In the bombed city of Mariupol, around 100,000 people are believed to be trapped with little food, water or medicine. An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders and 1,000 civilians were entrenched at the Azovstal steelworks.
The Soviet-era steelworks has an extensive underground network of bunkers that can withstand airstrikes. But the situation worsened after the Russians dropped “bunker breakers” and other bombs.
“Residents who manage to leave Mariupol say it’s hell, but when they leave this fortress they say it’s worse,” the mayor said.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and kyiv to create safe passage.
This time, “we hope there is a little touch of humanity in the enemy,” the mayor said. Ukraine has blamed the failure of many previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya channel that the real problem is that “humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultra-nationals”. Moscow has repeatedly claimed that right-wing Ukrainians are thwarting evacuation efforts and using civilians as human shields.
WATCH | Russian missile strikes rock kyiv, fighting escalates in eastern Ukraine:
In further comments published by China’s official Xinhua news agency on Saturday, Lavrov said Russia had evacuated more than a million people from Ukraine since the war began, including more than 300 Chinese civilians.
Ukraine has accused Moscow of forcibly expelling Ukrainians from the country.
Lavrov also said Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were talking “almost every day” but blamed “belligerent rhetoric and inflammatory actions by Western supporters of the kyiv regime” for disrupting talks.
Fighting could be heard from Kramatorsk to Sloviansk, two towns some 18 kilometers apart in the Donbass. Columns of smoke rose from the Sloviansk region and neighboring towns. At least one person was reportedly injured in the shelling.
Zelensky: “Russia wants to empty this territory”
In his nightly video speech, Zelensky accused Russia of trying to destroy Donbass and everyone who lives there.
The constant attacks “show that Russia wants to empty this territory of all people”, he said.
“If the Russian invaders are able to carry out their plans, even partially, then they have enough artillery and planes to turn all of Donbass to stone, as they did with Mariupol.”
Ukrainian troops in the Luhansk region of Donbass repelled an attack by Russian airborne troops and killed most of their unit, the governor said.
“Only seven of the invaders survived,” Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Telegram on Friday. The request could not be immediately confirmed.
He did not specify where the attack took place, but said Russian forces were preparing for an attack on Severodonetsk.
Living in buildings with gaping holes
In a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kharkiv that is regularly shelled by Russian forces, some residents remain in their apartments, even though the buildings have gaping charred holes. There is no running water or electricity, so they gather outside to cook over an open flame.
Ukrainian reservists staying in a basement in the neighborhood say the Russians hit the buildings with rocket, artillery and tank fire.
“A tank can come at a short distance and fire all its ammunition at residential areas. It doesn’t matter where. And it’s impossible to know where it will fire,” said Vladislav, who, like other members of the unit, would only give his first name. “There is nothing here except residential buildings, schools and kindergartens.”
Most reservists had civilian jobs before the start of the war and said they took up arms during the Russian invasion.
“When your city is destroyed, when people close to you are killed, there is no other option,” said a reservist named Ihor.
Another reservist, surnamed Malysh, expressed frustration at not being able to do more to stop the Russian advance.
“I took up arms, but unfortunately I can’t catch flying missiles with my bare hands and throw them back,” he said.
In the nearby village of Ruska Lozava, hundreds of people were evacuated after Ukrainian forces recaptured the town from Russian occupiers, according to the regional governor. Those who fled to Kharkiv spoke of dire conditions under the Russians, with little water or food and no electricity.
“We were hiding in the basement. It was horrific. The basement was shaking because of the explosions. We were screaming, we were crying and we were praying to God,” said Ludmila Bocharnikova.