Russia has stopped delivering gas to Finland in an escalation of a dispute over energy payments with western nations, and claimed victory in a weeks-long battle for Mariupol's devastated Azovstal steel plant as it presses for control of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the southeastern Donbas region where Russian-backed separatists already controlled swathes of territory before Moscow’s February 24th invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces in those eastern separatist-controlled regions said on Saturday they had repelled nine attacks and destroyed five tanks and 10 other armoured vehicles in the previous 24 hours. They said that as of 9pm local time there was still fighting in four unspecified locations. At least seven people were killed in the Donetsk region, the forces said.
The last Ukrainian forces holed up in the Azovstal steelworks in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol surrendered on Friday, Russia’s defence ministry said, ending the bloodiest siege of the war.
The ministry said in a statement that 2,439 defenders had surrendered in the past few days, including 531 in the final group.
Earlier, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine's military had told the last defenders at the steelworks they could get out and save their lives. The Ukrainian side did not immediately confirm the figures on Azovstal.
Ukraine’s general staff of armed forces did not comment on Russia’s claim in its morning update on Saturday.
The end of fighting in Mariupol, the biggest city Russia has captured so far, gives Russian president Vladimir Putin a rare victory in the invasion after a series of setbacks in nearly three months of combat.
Mr Zelenskiy told local television that while the fighting would be bloody and victory difficult, the end would only come through diplomacy.
“For them, all these victories – the occupation of Crimea or Donbas – is very temporary. And all this will return – since this is our territory,” he said on Saturday.
Full control of Mariupol will give Russia command of an overland route linking the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, with mainland Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia separatists.
The Red Cross said it had registered hundreds of Ukrainians who surrendered at the Mariupol steel plant as prisoners of war and Kyiv says it wants a prisoner swap. Moscow says the prisoners will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying some must be tried or even executed.
Russia “will explore” swapping some of Ukraine’s Mariupol defenders for Viktor Medvedchuk, a detained Ukrainian ally of Mr Putin, Interfax news agency reported, citing senior politician Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian negotiating team that took part in peace talks with Kyiv.
Portuguese prime minister António Costa arrived in Ukraine on Saturday as it celebrated Europe Day, and met with Mr Zelenskiy. He also visited Irpin, near Kyiv, which was seriously damaged by Russian forces who occupied the area from late February through March.
“What impresses me the most is violence against civilians,” said Mr Costa. “The levels of destruction and violence are completely devastating.”
On Saturday, Portugal pledged up to €250 million aid to Ukraine, as well as continued shipments of military equipment.
Meanwhile, Russia's Gazprom halted gas exports to neighbouring Finland on Saturday after it refused to agree to Russian demands to pay for Russian gas supplies in roubles that followed western sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine.
The move comes days after Finland and Sweden decided to apply to join the Nato military alliance, a decision spurred by the Ukraine war.
Finnish state-owned gas wholesaler Gasum, the Finnish government and individual gas consuming companies in Finland have said they were prepared for a shutdown of Russian flows and that the country will manage without.
In addition to trying to isolate Russia through sanctions, western nations have stepped up weapons supplies to Ukraine since the invasion began. Kyiv got another huge boost on Saturday when US president Joe Biden signed a bill to provide nearly $40 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid to the country.
Moscow says western arms deliveries for Kyiv and the imposition of drastic sanctions amounts to a “proxy war” by the US and its allies.
President Joe Biden led a list of 963 US citizens personally sanctioned by Moscow on Saturday. The sanctions include a ban on entry to Russia. Besides Mr Biden and his son Hunter, the list includes secretary of state Antony Blinken and Republican senator Lindsey Graham. Also listed were current and former US politicians, judges, prosecutors, FBI agents, businesspeople and private citizens.
The Russian military said on Saturday it had destroyed a major consignment of western arms in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region, west of Kyiv, using sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles.
Reuters could not independently verify the report, which also said Russian missiles had struck fuel storage facilities near Odesa on the Black Sea coast and shot down two Ukrainian Su-25 aircraft and 14 drones.
Mr Putin says Russian troops are engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and rid it of radical anti-Russian nationalists, claims that have been widely dismissed. Western countries call the invasion an unprovoked war of aggression.
Thousands of people in Ukraine have been killed and urban areas have been shattered in the war. Almost one-third of Ukraine’s people have fled their homes, including more than 6 million who have left the country.
Russia, which announced in late March it was focusing its military efforts on taking control of Donbas, has launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Luhansk.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said in a social media post early on Saturday that Russia was trying to destroy the city of Sievierodonetsk, with fighting taking place on the outskirts of the city.
“Shelling continues from morning to the evening and also throughout the night,” Mr Gaidai said in a video post on the Telegram messaging app.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front.
The city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets river form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture Kyiv.
Russian troops destroyed a bridge on the river between Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, Mr Gaidai said on Telegram.
Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven in recent weeks from the area surrounding Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and the Kyiv region at the end of March.
But they still control a large swathe of the south and east, and the end of fighting in Mariupol means that that territory is now largely unbroken.
In a sign of Russia’s aim to boost its war effort, the parliament in Moscow said it would consider letting Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 join the military. – Reuters/Bloomberg/AP