(KYIV, Ukraine) — Russian forces tightened the noose around the defenders holed up Wednesday in a mammoth steel plant that represented the last known Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol, as a fighter apparently on the inside pleaded on a video for help: “We may have only a few days or hours left.”
The holdouts came under severe bombing attack, and another attempt to evacuate the civilians trapped inside the pulverized port failed.
Meanwhile, the number of people fleeing the country topped 5 million, the Kremlin said it submitted a draft of its demands for ending the war, and the West raced to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons to counter the Russians’ new drive to seize the industrial east.
Russia’s first test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile type, called the Sarmat, was accomplished amid rising tensions. President Vladimir Putin boasted it can overcome any missile defense system and make those who threaten Russia “think twice,” and the head of the Russian state aerospace agency called the launch out of northern Russia “a present to NATO.”
The Pentagon described the test as “routine” and said it wasn’t considered a threat.
According to Ukraine, Moscow was continuing its offensives in the east and probing weak spots within the Ukrainian defense lines. Russia stated that hundreds of missiles and air strikes were launched against targets with large concentrations, according to Russian officials.
The Kremlin’s stated goal is the capture of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that is home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories. Putin would be able to seize the Donbas two months after his failed attempt at storming Kyiv.
According to the Luhansk governor, Russian forces control now 80% of his area. This is just one of two regions that makes up the Donbas. The Kyiv government had 60% control of Luhansk before Russia invaded it on February 24.
Gov. Serhiy Haidai stated that the Russians have now threatened the Rubizhne-Popasna cities after they seize Kreminna. All residents were urged to flee immediately.
“The occupiers control only parts of these cities, unable to break through to the centers,” Haidai said on the messaging app Telegram.
Analysts say the offensive in the east could devolve into a war of attrition as Russia runs up against Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for eight years.
Russia said it presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands for ending the conflict — days after Putin said the talks were at a “dead end.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “the ball is in their court, we’re waiting for a response.” He gave no details on the draft, and it was not clear when it was sent or if it offered anything new to the Ukrainians, who presented their own demands last month.
Volodmyr Zeleskyy, the Ukrainian president, said that he hadn’t heard or seen the proposal. However one of his most trusted advisers stated that the Ukrainian side is reviewing the document.
Moscow demands that Ukraine cease any offer to NATO membership. In return for security assurances from several other countries, Ukraine said that it will agree. There are also tensions over the Crimean Peninsula which Moscow seized in 2014 as well as eastern Ukraine. In these areas, separatists have created independent republics, recognized by Russia.
In devastated Mariupol, Ukraine said the Russians dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of the sprawling Azvostal steel plant, believed to be the city’s last pocket of resistance.
A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians’ estimate, remained in the plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers spread out across about 11 square kilometers (4 square miles). Zelenskyy stated that about 1000 civilians were trapped in the plant.
A Ukrainian posted a video plea on Facebook urging world leaders to help evacuate people from the plant, saying, “We have more than 500 wounded soldiers and hundreds of civilians with us, including women and children.”
The officer, who identified himself as Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Marine Brigade, said: “This may be our last appeal. We may have only a few days or hours left.” The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
While the Russians gave a new order to the defenders for surrender, the Ukrainians ignored every previous demand.
Mariupol had an estimated 100,000 inhabitants, with more than 400,000 people living there before the war.
Iryna Vreshchuk (Ukraine’s deputy prime minister) stated that Russia failed to respect a cease-fire and closed the safe passage for children, women and elderly. Because of the ongoing fighting, many previous agreements like this have failed.
Mykhailo podolyak (Zelenskyy advisor) stated on Twitter that he was ready to meet with other Ukrainian negotiators to discuss the possibility of holding talks to rescue civilians as well as defenders in Mariupol. Russia didn’t immediately reply.
Anthony Blinken, U.S. Secretary-of-State, warned that Mariupol will be a scene of terror after the Russians’ retreat. This was in light of the destruction and death left in Bucha.
“We can only anticipate that when this tide also recedes from Mariupol, we’re going to see far worse, if that’s possible to imagine,” he said.
For both sides, Mariupol is a symbol of strategic and symbolic importance. Because of its suffering, it has become a global focal point in the conflict. Mariupol’s fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.
Russia was continuing to send troops and equipment to the Donbas. Western countries rushed to increase the flow of military materials to Kyiv to support this new phase, which will likely involve long-range artillery strikes and tank battles on relatively open terrain.
According to U.S. officials, Joe Biden would announce Thursday that he plans to increase military assistance to Ukraine.
According to the official who spoke under anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly, Biden would detail the plans he has to increase the $2.6 billion of military aid the government approved. Canada and the Netherlands said that they will send heavier weaponry.
Also, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment of the war, said the training of Ukrainian personnel on American 155 mm howitzers has begun in a European country outside Ukraine, and the first of 18 promised such weapons began arriving on the continent.
Putin, meanwhile, boasted that the Sarmat missile has “no equivalents in the world.” The Sarmat is intended to eventually replace the Soviet-built missile code-named Satan by NATO as a major component of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
It will ”make those who, in the heat of frantic, aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country think twice,” the Russian leader said.
Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, requested that Zelenskyy and Putin meet in their capitals to find a way to end the violence. U.N. didn’t respond to the request immediately.
Mstyslav and Felipe Chernov from Associated Press in Kharkiv and Yesica Fisch respectively in Kramatorsk and Ukraine, Robert Burns and Aamer madhani contributed to the report as well as other AP staff around the globe.
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