A Russian ultimatum to Ukrainian troops in Mariupol to surrender or die expired on Wednesday afternoon with no mass capitulation, but the commander of a unit believed to be holding out in the besieged city said his forces could survive just days or hours.
Ukraine said it had so far held off an assault by thousands of Russian troops attempting to advance in what Kyiv calls the Battle of the Donbas, a new campaign to seize two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
The commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, one of the last units believed to be holding out in Mariupol, asked for international help to escape the port city’s siege.
“This is our appeal to the world. It may be our last. We may have only a few days or hours left,” said Maj Serhiy Volyna. “The enemy units are dozens of times larger than ours, they have dominance in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in equipment and in tanks.”
Russia’s nearly eight-week-long invasion has failed to capture any of Ukraine’s largest cities. Moscow was forced to retreat from northern Ukraine after an assault on Kyiv was repelled last month, but has poured troops back in for an assault on the east that began this week.
The United Nations said the number of refugees who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24th now exceeds five million. More than half are children.
Mariupol in ruins
In the ruins of Mariupol, site of the war's heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, Russia was hitting the last main Ukrainian stronghold, the Azovstal steel plant, with bunker-buster bombs, said Kyiv.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy claimed an estimated 1,000 civilians were sheltering at the plant. And he added that he remained ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for safe passage for the trapped civilians and Ukrainian soldiers.
Dozens of civilians later boarded a small convoy of buses in Mariupol that then departed to Ukraine-controlled territory, said two witnesses.
Mariupol city authorities said earlier on Wednesday they were hoping to evacuate about 6,000 people under a preliminary agreement with Russia – the first in weeks – on establishing a safe corridor. Russia has been trying to take full control of Mariupol since the war’s early days. Its capture would be a big strategic prize, linking territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
Once a prosperous port of 400,000 people, Mariupol has been reduced to a blasted wasteland with corpses in the streets and residents confined to cellars. Ukrainian officials say tens of thousands of civilians have died there.
Russian-backed separatists said shortly before a 3pm Irish time Wednesday deadline that just five people in Mariupol had surrendered. The previous day, Russia said no one had responded to a similar surrender demand.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in a phone call that the outcome of talks with Ukraine completely depended on Kyiv's readiness to take into account Russia's demands.
The Russian foreign ministry also said Mr Lavrov and Mr Cavusoglu discussed the situation in Mariupol and possible measures aimed at providing safety to civilians, including from foreign countries.
The battle for the Donbas region, which includes the provinces Luhansk and Donetsk, could be decisive as Russia searches for a victory to justify President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Mr Putin says Ukraine mistreated Russian speakers in the Donbas, an accusation Kyiv rejects.
Russian television showed Mr Putin telling a girl from Luhansk on Wednesday: “It was the tragedy that took place in the Donbas, including in the Lugansk People’s Republic, that forced, simply forced Russia to launch this military operation.”
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia was focusing on advancing towards the strategically important Donbas city of Sloviansk, but “so far they are not succeeding”. Targeting that area from several directions is part of an apparent effort to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east.
Meanwhile, peace talks have stalled. The Kremlin accused Kyiv of delaying negotiations and changing its position. Kyiv accuses Moscow of blocking talks by refusing humanitarian ceasefires and Mr Zelenskiy said he knew nothing of a document the Kremlin said it had sent concerning peace talks.
Moscow is hoping its advantage in firepower will give it more success in the east than in the campaign against Kyiv, when its overstretched supply lines were attacked by fast-moving small units.
US president Joe Biden will convene top US military leaders as the war in Ukraine enters a new phase. Washington plans to deliver additional military aid.
In a parallel development Russia test launched its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a new addition to its nuclear arsenal that Mr Putin said had no peer and would give Moscow’s enemies something to think about.
Charles Michel, head of the European Council that groups the 27 EU member states, held talks with Mr Zelenskiy in Kyiv to show Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine. – Reuters