Service members of pro-Russian troops are seen atop of a tank on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine. Reuters
Russian forces pushed forward on Monday in their assault on Ukraine, seeking to capture the crucial southern port city of Mariupol as Moscow prepared to celebrate its national Victory Day holiday.
Determined to show a success in a war now in its 11th week, Russian troops have targeted a sprawling seaside steel mill where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were making what appeared to be their last stand to save Mariupol from falling.
The mill is the only part of the city not overtaken by the invaders, and its defeat would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that worsening attacks could be linked to Victory Day, which marks Russia’s greatest triumph, over Nazi Germany in 1945. Russian President Vladimir Putin may want to proclaim a win in Ukraine when he addresses troops parading on Red Square.
A man holds a Russian flag during the Victory Day celebrations in the far eastern city of Vladivostok on Monday. AFP
"They have nothing to celebrate,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, said of the Russians, speaking on CNN. "They have not succeeded in defeating the Ukrainians. They have not succeeded in dividing the world or dividing NATO. And they have only succeeded in isolating themselves internationally and becoming a pariah state around the globe.”
Though fighting continues on multiple fronts, Russia is closest to victory in Mariupol.
Ukrainian fighters in the steel mill have rejected deadlines set by the Russians for laying down their arms even as attacks continued by warplanes, artillery and tanks.
"We are under constant shelling,” said Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, a unit holding the steel mill.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting. File photo
Lt. Illya Samoilenko, another member of the Azov Regiment, said there were a couple of hundred wounded soldiers at the plant but declined to reveal how many able-bodied fighters remained. He said fighters didn’t have lifesaving equipment and had to dig by hand to free people from bunkers that had collapsed under the shelling.
"Surrender for us is unacceptable because we cannot grant such a gift to the enemy,” Samoilenko said.
The last of the civilians taking shelter with fighters at the plant were evacuated Saturday. They arrived Sunday night in Zaporizhzhia, the first major Ukrainian city beyond the frontlines, and spoke of constant shelling, dwindling food, ubiquitous mold — and using hand sanitizer for cooking fuel.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, more than 60 people were feared dead after a Russian bomb flattened a school being used as a shelter in the eastern village of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv. File photo
Authorities said about 90 people were sheltering in the school’s basement when it was attacked Saturday. Emergency crews found two bodies and rescued 30 people, but "most likely all 60 people who remain under the rubble are now dead,” Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk province, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Russian shelling also killed two boys, ages 11 and 14, in the nearby town of Pryvillia, Haidai said. Luhansk is part of the Donbas, the industrial heartland in the east that Russia’s forces are working to capture.