War in Ukraine: Russian forces enter territory of Mariupol plant as EU proposes oil imports ban

Kyiv says Moscow is intensifying military offensive in eastern Ukraine

The European Union's leader has called on the 27-nation bloc to ban oil imports from Russia in a sixth package of sanctions targeting Moscow for its war in Ukraine.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also proposed that Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and two other major banks be disconnected from the Swift international banking payment system.

Russian forces have entered the territory of Mariupol’s Azovstal plant, Ukraine’s ruling parliamentary faction head David Arakhamia said in a Wednesday evening comment to RFE/RL. “Attempts to storm the plant continue for the second day. Russian troops are already on the territory of Azovstal,” RFE/RL quoted Mr Arakhamia as saying, adding that as of Wednesday evening contact remained between Ukraine’s government and the Ukrainian fighters in the plant. The plant is the last redoubt for resistance in the embattled port city.

The latest developments came as Kyiv said Moscow was intensifying an offensive in eastern Ukraine and close Russian ally Belarus announced large-scale army drills.

Nearly 10 weeks into a war that has killed thousands of people, uprooted millions and flattened Ukrainian cities, Russia was intensifying its assault in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s defence ministry said, with nearly 50 air strikes carried out on Tuesday alone.

Russia also stepped up strikes on targets in western Ukraine, saying it was disrupting western arms deliveries.

On Wednesday, a new convoy of buses began evacuating more civilians from the ravaged southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has seen the heaviest fighting of the war so far and where Moscow said remaining Ukrainian forces remained tightly blockaded.

Ms von der Leyen, addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, called on the EU’s member nations to phase out imports of crude oil from Russia within six months and refined products by the end of the year.

“We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion, in a way that allows us and our partners to secure alternative supply routes and minimises the impact on global markets,” said Ms von der Leyen.

The proposals need to be unanimously approved to take effect and are likely to be the subject of fierce debate.

Ms von der Leyen conceded that getting all 27 member countries – some of them landlocked and highly dependent on Russia for energy supplies – to agree on oil sanctions “will not be easy”.

If approved, the ban on oil imports will be the second package of EU sanctions targeting Russia's lucrative energy industry over its war in Ukraine that Russian president Vladimir Putin started on February 24th.

In addition to sanctions on various entities and individuals – including Mr Putin himself and members of his family – the bloc previously approved an embargo on coal imports.

Brussels has also proposed freezing the assets of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, adding him to a draft blacklist of hundreds of individuals accused of supporting the war, a diplomat said on Wednesday.

The EU has started discussions on a possible natural gas embargo, but consensus among member countries on targeting the fuel used to generate electricity and heat homes is more difficult to secure.

Hungary and Slovakia have already said they would not take part in any oil sanctions, and Ms von der Leyen did not elaborate on whether they would receive an exemption from the sanctions, although this appears likely.

Ms von der Leyen also said that the EU should target high-ranking military officers and others “who committed war crimes in Bucha”, a suburb of the capital Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.

Ms von der Leyen said the aim is that “we de-Swift Sberbank”. Swift is the major global system for financial transfers. Ms von der Leyen said Sberbank holds about 37 per cent of the Russian banking sector.

“And we will also de-Swift two other major banks in Russia. By that, we hit banks that are systemically critical to the Russian financial system and Putin’s ability to wage destruction,” she said.

Ms Von der Leyen added that those alleged to be spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine would be targeted.

Mariupol

Russian forces are pounding targets in eastern Ukraine, unleashing rockets on the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Scores of evacuees who managed to leave the city under United Nations and Red Cross auspices reached the relative safety of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday after cowering for weeks in bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.

Russia is targeting Mariupol as it seeks to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and connect Russian-controlled territory in the south and east. Parts of the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were held by Russian-backed separatists before Russian president Vladimir Putin launched the February 24th invasion.

More than 200 civilians remain in the plant, according to Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko, with 100,000 civilians still in the city. Mr Boichenko reported heavy fighting at Azovstal on Wednesday. More than 30 children are among the civilians there awaiting evacuation, he added.

Mariupol, a city of 400,000 before the invasion, has seen the bloodiest fighting, enduring weeks of siege and shelling.

A ceasefire broke down with some civilians still trapped in the bunkers beneath its Azovstal steel works despite a UN-brokered evacuation.

An AP investigation has shown the Russian bombing on March 16th of a theatre in Mariupol used as the city’s main bomb shelter was far deadlier than estimated, killing closer to 600 people inside and outside the building.

Economic stakes

Moscow showed no signs of backing down nearly 10 weeks into what it calls a “special military operation”. Russia’s own $1.8 trillion economy is heading for its biggest contraction since the years following the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin on Wednesday dismissed speculation Mr Putin would formally declare war on Ukraine and decree a national mobilisation on May 9th, when Russia commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the second World War.

Mr Putin has raised the economic stakes for Kyiv’s western backers by announcing plans to block exports of vital raw materials.

Russian forces have turned their heaviest firepower on Ukraine’s east and south after failing to take Kyiv, the capital, in the opening weeks of the war.

There were also fresh attacks in Ukraine’s west on Tuesday. The mayor of Lviv said Russian missile strikes had damaged electricity and water networks in the western city near the Polish border, across which flows western arms supplies for Ukraine’s military.

Russian forces also struck six railway stations in the centre and west of the country, the head of Ukraine’s railways, Olesksandr Kamyshin, said. There were no injuries to civilians, he added on Twitter.

Russia said it had struck a military airfield near the Black Sea port of Odesa with missiles, destroying drones, weapons and ammunition supplied by the West. Ukraine said three missiles targeted the Odesa region and all were intercepted. – Reuters/AP

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