The fate of the city hinges on an unknown number of defenders taking their last stand at an iron and steel factory.
In addition to crushing the holdout in Mariupol, Russian forces have stepped up their attacks elsewhere in the Donbas, home to coal mines, metal works and factories vital to Ukraine’s economy.
Major Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th Separate Marine Brigade, called on world leaders for help in a dramatic video released Wednesday.
“I have a statement to the world,” he said.
“It may be my last statement as we only have a few days or even hours to go.
“The enemy’s units are ten times larger than ours.
“They have supremacy in the air, artillery and units that are dislocated on the ground, equipment and tanks.”
The Ukrainian commander estimated that “hundreds of civilians” were hiding in the factory’s territory, along with 500 wounded soldiers struggling for medical care.
“We call on the world leaders to apply the extraction procedure to the army of the Mariupol garrison, to the civilians who are here at our factory,” he said.
“We ask you to take us to the territory of a third country and provide us with security.”
According to Russian estimates, there were still a few thousand Ukrainian troops in the steel plant.
The Russian side issued a new ultimatum to the defenders on Wednesday to surrender, but the Ukrainians have ignored demands to leave the factory’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers.
Even amid the Russian attack on Wednesday, there was renewed hope for an evacuation of thousands of civilians from the devastated port city.
Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko has urged locals to leave the city, although previous such agreements have fallen apart, with Russians preventing buses intended to pick up evacuees from entering the city or shelling escape routes.
“Fear not and evacuate to Zaporizhzhya, where you can get all the help you need – food, medicine, supplies – and most importantly you will be safe,” he wrote in a statement from the city council.
Officials have given varying estimates of how many people are left in the city, which had more than 400,000 inhabitants before the war.
Cr Boychenko said about half had fled and asked those who needed to contact relatives still in the city and urged them to evacuate.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow captured from Ukraine in 2014, and free up Russian troops to relocate elsewhere in the Donbas.
If successful, the Russian offensive in the Donbas would cut Ukraine in half and give President Vladimir Putin a much-needed victory after Moscow forces’ failed attempt to storm the capital Kiev and stronger-than-expected resistance in the nearly two-month-long war.
But analysts say it could also degenerate into a grim battle of attrition as Russia tries to defeat Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have been battling pro-Moscow separatist forces for eight years in largely Russian-speaking Donbas.
With that potentially pivotal offensive underway, Russia said on Wednesday it had submitted a draft document to Ukraine outlining its demands as part of talks aimed at ending the conflict — days after Putin said negotiations were on a “dead end.” ” had ended up.
“The ball is in the Ukrainians’ court, we are waiting for a response,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a conference call with reporters.
Ukrainian displaced people celebrate Easter in Slovakia
He gave no details on the design and it was not clear when the Russian document was sent or if it offered anything new to the Ukrainians, who presented their own demands last month.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser said Kiev was reviewing the proposals.