Ukraine Braces for Escalated Attacks Ahead of Russia’s V-Day

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — The war in Ukraine wracked the country’s southern coast Saturday as Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the city of Odesa and bombarded a steel mill housing Ukrainian civilians and fighters, hoping to complete their conquest of the port of Mariupol in time for Victory Day celebrations.

However, in a sign of the unexpectedly effective defense that has sustained the fighting into its 11th week, Ukraine’s military flattened Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the war’s first days and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counter-offensive also was advancing around the nation’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key target of Russian shelling. According to the Ukrainian army, it had retaken control of five villages as well as a part of a sixth village near Kharkiv.

As Russia’s Monday holiday commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II approached, cities across Ukraine prepared for an expected increase in Russian attacks. Volodymyr Zeleskyy, President of Ukraine, warned residents who were numbed from more than 10 years of war that they should heed warnings about air raids.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embody the spirit of those who prevalied during the Second World War.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying “to twist history to attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine.”

“As war again rages in Europe, we must increase our resolve to resist those who now seek to manipulate historical memory in order to advance their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement issued as the United States and United Kingdom marked the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago.

In eastern Ukraine, the conflict is raging in fierce retake or capture wars. Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine has focused on claiming the industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.

Moscow’s also has sought to sweep across southern Ukraine to both cut off the country from the sea and to connect its territory to the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, long home to Russian troops. However, it failed to realize these goals.

Six Russian cruise missiles were fired from an aircraft on Saturday. Authorities have placed a curfew until Tuesday morning. On social media, videos showed thick black smoke rising from Odesa and sirens wailing in the background.

Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting Russian-held Snake Island in a bid to impede Russia’s efforts to control the Black Sea. A satellite image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s northern beach.

It is an image that corresponds to a Ukrainian military film showing a drone attacking the Russian vessel and setting it ablaze. Snake Island is located 35 km (20 miles) from the coast. It was the scene of a remarkable incident in early wartime when Ukrainian border guards stationed there refused to surrender and used colorful language.

In this context, Ukrainian fighters made one last stand against a total takeover of Mariupol. Moscow would have a land bridge with the Crimea Peninsula if it could secure the Sea of Azov Port, which is strategically crucial. It was annexed by Ukraine in a 2014 invasion.

The AP released new satellite images that showed the extent of destruction at the seaside steel plant, which is still the cornerstone of Ukrainian resistance. According to images taken Friday by Planet Labs PBC, large holes were found in roofs of buildings at Azovstal’s Azovstal plant. This includes one where hundreds of civilians and fighters may be hiding.

Despite a Russian offer for a temporary ceasefire, which would have allowed civilians in the area to escape, bombardment of this steel mill increased. Russia used artillery and mortars as well as truck-mounted rocket system, aerial bombardment, and sea shelling to attack the steel mill.

After a week-long effort to rescue civilians from Mariupol, the emergency services sought to move more people to safety on Saturday. Several hundred civilians were transferred to the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday, according to Russian and Ukrainian officials.

This latest group of evacuees follows approximately 500 others who were permitted to leave the site and other parts in the city over the past few days.

While the Azovstal Mill fighters have been refusing to surrender to their superiors, they did admit that on Saturday white flags were used by the Russians to expel civilians. Social media posts from the fighters stated that they had used white flags to stop fighting and evacuate civilians.

According to them, Saturday was their fourth attempt at raising the flags in this manner. Following comments made by the Russian commanding officer, the statement stated that Ukrainians had used the white flag to negotiate with their attackers.

Ukrainian authorities have asked international organisations to help expel the fighters who are defending the facility. By Russia’s most recent estimate, roughly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained at the Azovstal steelworks. They refused to surrender repeatedly.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, although he did not mention any by name.

“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still at Azovstal,” he said in his nightly video address early Saturday.

The memory of the people still left behind was part of the relief that those who had been evacuated brought.

“They need our help badly,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-yer-old daughter and four others from their bunker, leaving behind another 30. “We need to get them out.”

The Russian military continued to pound the plant but failed to achieve significant gains in other areas nearly 2 1/2 years into an utterly destructive war which has left thousands dead, forced millions to flee Ukraine, and flattened vast swathes of certain cities.

Kharkiv was Ukraine’s first Soviet capital and had an estimated population of 1.4 million before the war. It remained a major target for Russian bombardment in the northeast. However, Western military experts said that Ukrainian forces had made progress in the security of Kharkiv.

A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its most recent assessment that Ukraine’s military may be able to push Russian forces “out of artillery range of Kharkiv in the coming days,” providing a respite for the city and an opportunity to build the defenders’ momentum “into a successful, broader counteroffensive.”

According to local authorities, another development was that a Russian missile destroyed Saturday a Ukrainian museum dedicated the work and life of an 18th century philosopher. The local council posted photos on Facebook that showed the Gregory Skovoroda Museum in flames.

As an indication of his importance to Ukraine’s cultural heritage, Skovoroda’s likeness adorns a Ukrainian banknote. Skovorodynivka’s museum is located near Russia’s border in Kharkiv, where there has been intense fighting.

Zelenskyy said in his nightly address that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in all the countries of the free worldunderstanding what is at stake in the ruinous war.

“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that freedom gives to people and states,” the Ukrainian leader said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully comprehensible for any society, in any corner of the globe.”

At the United Nations in New York, the U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously adopted its first statement on Ukraine, expressing “strong support” for the secretary general’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the 10-week old “dispute.”

Talks about ending the war are still on hold. Zelenskyy indicated Friday that negotiations to end the war are on hold. However, he said that Russia would only be willing to negotiate with him if Moscow resumes pre-invasion positions.

“In that situation, we will be able to start discussing things normally,” Zelenskyy told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. Ukraine could then use “diplomatic channels” to regain its territory, he said.

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