Ultimatum passes; Russia intensifies attacks in eastern Ukraine

Russia on Wednesday issued a last-chance surrender ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in the besieged port of Mariupol, whose desperate defenders, pleading for international aid, said they were “probably facing our final days, if not hours.”

Hundreds of miles from a scythe-shaped battlefront in eastern Ukraine echoed the noise of Russian bombing in towns and villages, as Moscow’s ground forces made a series of what Ukrainian military officials described as intrusive strikes that yielded no substantial new territorial gains.

With the war nearly ninth week in, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his overnight video address to the nation that nearly all of the Russian armed forces were “concentrated on the territory of our state” and just outside its borders. Moscow, he said, deployed “almost everyone and everything that is capable of fighting”.

Russia’s February 24 invasion of its smaller neighbor has created a refugee crisis on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimated the total of those fleeing Ukraine at 5 million. More than 7 million are internally displaced.

A woman holds an Orthodox Christian icon as she stands outside a damaged apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine.

(Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

As the violence of the fighting has increased – and in the weeks since horrific evidence has emerged of Russian atrocities against civilians on the outskirts of Kiev – diplomatic efforts have failed. On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blamed Ukraine for the standoff, saying Moscow had sent Zelensky’s government a draft document containing “absolutely clear” proposals and Ukraine had failed to respond.

“The ball is in their court,” Peskov told reporters. In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow of distorting what was said during the negotiations.

Less than three weeks remain until the symbolically crucial date of May 9, when Russia annually celebrates its historic victory over Nazi Germany. Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to be determined by then to secure a major victory in a military campaign in Ukraine ravaged by setbacks to Moscow.

The most likely prospect of that is the capture of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of ​​Azov that has been nearly wiped off the map by constant Russian bombing. In a message recorded deep within a sprawling steel factory where Ukrainian troops and some scared civilians are holed up, a Ukrainian commander said the defenders were outnumbered 10 to 1 by Russian attackers.

“We are probably heading into our final days, if not hours,” said 36th Marine Brigade officer Serhiy Volnya in the video posted to Facebook. He pleaded with world leaders to ensure that the Ukrainian troops remaining in the steel mill and underground tunnels are extracted and taken “to the territory of a third state.”

Pro-Russian separatists walk past damaged apartment buildings in Ukraine's Mariupol

Pro-Russian separatists walk past damaged apartment buildings in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

(Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

Russia has dropped heavy bombs on the steel complex while issuing repeated requests for surrender, promising that those who give up would be unharmed. Ukraine also says a Mariupol hospital where hundreds of civilians had fled was targeted. But previous ultimatums, on Sunday and Tuesday, were ignored by the Ukrainian side, as was Wednesday’s.

Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said on national television on Wednesday that Ukrainian officials hoped to remove 6,000 women, children and the elderly from the city, but said the arrangement with Russia to allow safe passage was tentative. Tens of thousands of residents are trapped in appalling conditions in the city, without access to drinking water, food or medical supplies.

Mariupol, a once thriving port city of nearly half a million inhabitants, now lies in ruins, with three quarters of its pre-war population either displaced or dead, but still considered a strategic prize. Conquering it could create a land corridor connecting the Russian-controlled parts of the Donbas – Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland – to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow eight years ago.

While Russia focused its “main effort” on capturing Mariupol, the Ukrainian army said Russian forces also made repeated attacks in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of the Donbas. Ten Russian ground attacks were repulsed in the past 24 hours, the military said in an operational report on Wednesday.

Since both sides declared on Monday that the war had entered a new phase, Russian troops have taken Kreminna, an eastern city of about 18,000 people at the front.

While some Western officials and analysts questioned whether the Russian offensive in the east was seriously underway, British military intelligence said in a new assessment that fighting intensified in the Donbas as Russian forces attempted to breach Ukrainian defenses and disrupt supplies. lines and redeployment of troops on the Ukrainian side.

“Russian attacks on cities across Ukraine demonstrate their attempt to disrupt the movement of Ukrainian reinforcements and weapons to the east of the country,” the review said.

Supplies and reinforcements, combined with serious morale problems, were the main weaknesses in Russia’s own drive to take Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, an attempt Moscow gave up a month ago. Analysts say the same issues could also plague Moscow’s efforts in the east.

But vast open areas and superior firepower could favor Russia’s advance in the east — the main reason Zelensky argues almost daily for more heavy weapons from the West.

“If we had access to all the weapons that we need, that our partners have and that are comparable to the weapons used by the Russian Federation, we would have already ended this war,” he said in his overnight speech.

The United States, Canada and Britain have promised Ukraine more artillery, and Norway is sending air defense missiles. In addition to new sanctions against Russia that the White House says are in the works, President Biden is expected to announce a new military aid package for Kiev in the coming days.

Some allied countries, including Germany, have been named by Ukrainian officials for declaring their arms supplies when the need is greatest. Seemingly stung by the criticism, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday cited recent shipments of anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine.

Baerbock, speaking at the start of a visit to the three Baltic states, said Germany also gave “other things we didn’t talk about publicly”.

Despite renewed bombing of the Ukrainian capital this week, Western VIPs continue to arrive. Charles Michel, head of the European Council, became the last senior European official to visit Kiev on Wednesday to show support for Ukraine.

Bulos message from Rubizhne and King from Berlin.

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