Russian forces launched a punitive artillery barrage on towns and villages in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, destroying power plants, fuel depots and other key infrastructure.
The assault came even as Western and Ukrainian military officials and analysts said Moscow’s much-vaunted military offensive into the country’s industrial heartland was being hampered by troop losses and problems with logistics, supplies and of morale.
And in Mariupol, the southern port city that has become ground zero for Russian brutality and Ukrainian resistance, a small group of women and children were finally evacuated from a besieged steel mill on Saturday, but hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, soldiers and wounded remained trapped.
Russia reported nearly 400 artillery strikes overnight and early Saturday, mostly in the eastern combat zone. He described the targets as military targets, but Ukraine says residential areas, including the northeastern city of Kharkiv, are ravaged. Ukrainian officials said among the targets hit on Saturday was Odessa airport, considered the crown jewel of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Damage to fuel depots was causing severe gasoline and power shortages, officials said.
At the same time, the Kremlin has redoubled its efforts to blame the West for the devastating war that is now in its third month. The Russian invasion killed thousands of people, left swathes of cities in ruins and turned more than 5.4 million people into refugees.
Moscow’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was quoted on Saturday as saying a flood of arms from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies was “inflating” the battle. But at the same time, in remarks to Chinese state media that were reported on the ministry’s website, Lavrov insisted that Washington and its European allies were “absolutely indifferent” to the fate of Ukraine. The Pentagon revealed this week that US military personnel were training Ukrainians in Germany in the use of artillery, radar systems and armored vehicles, all supplied to Ukraine by Washington and its allies.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a overnight video address to the nation on Saturday morning accused Russia of scorched earth tactics in two major eastern provinces known together as Donbass, where the fighting is concentrated. Moscow already had a foothold in two small breakaway states before the war, but is seeking to take over the entire region.
“Russia wants to make this area uninhabited,” Zelensky said, citing “constant brutal shelling” targeting infrastructure and areas populated by civilians.
Late Saturday night, he spoke again, switching to Russian to urge Russian soldiers not to fight.
“Every Russian soldier can still save his own life. It is better for you to survive in Russia than to perish on our land,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky said Russia’s determination to wipe out Ukraine is nowhere clearer than in Mariupol, the beleaguered port city he described as a “Russian concentration camp” among the ruins.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Mariupol more than a week ago, saying forces from Moscow control the city, but Ukrainian forces and civilians remain locked in a giant steel complex in harsher conditions. more desperate.
Russia blocks and bombs the sprawling compound, from which black smoke could be seen rising on Saturday.
Videos released from inside the maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the factory showed sick and injured women and elderly, distressed-looking children and infants wearing diapers made from duffel bags. plastic garbage. Online videos also showed horrific untreated injuries sustained by some troops defending the plant.
Ukrainian authorities were trying on Saturday to organize civilian evacuations from Mariupol and other particularly dangerous parts of the battle zone, but those efforts repeatedly failed, with Russian troops accused of firing on those fleeing.
The mayor of the eastern town of Popasna said on Saturday that a day earlier two buses en route to transport evacuees had come under fire and contact with the drivers had been lost. Later Saturday, Serhi Haidai, a regional official for the eastern Luhansk region, said one of the buses had been recovered. It had been hit by grenade fire and contained blood but no body, he said.
European governments have repeatedly expressed concern over the deteriorating living conditions of civilians in the east, particularly in Mariupol. On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron, who won re-election easily less than a week ago, told Zelensky by phone that France would increase both military and humanitarian aid, Macron’s office said.
Later on Saturday, Zelensky also spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who also promised more military aid and to work on evacuations from Mariupol, according to Johnson’s office.
According to Russian and Ukrainian reports, between 20 and 25 people eventually got out of Mariupol. The Ukrainian army said it was on its way to the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia. Russia, however, frequently forced evacuees from various cities into Russia, Russian-held territory, or Russian ally Belarus.
Ukrainian authorities and international investigators, meanwhile, have continued to make grisly discoveries in Russian-occupied areas early in the war, where much evidence of atrocities against civilians has already come to light. In a village near the suburban town of Bucha near the capital, police dug up the bodies of three other men, apparently civilians, blindfolded and with their hands tied.
Kyiv regional police chief Andrii Niebytov said in a video on Saturday that the bodies, found a day earlier, bore signs of torture and that the three men had been shot in the head, with injuries to their ears.
Hundreds of war crimes investigations are underway across the country, led primarily by Ukrainian officials but with additional assistance from the International Criminal Court, Britain and the United States. President Biden has already called Putin a war criminal.
As the fighting raged, the latest assessment of the conflict in British military intelligencereleased early Saturday, depicts Russian forces facing some of the same difficulties that caused Moscow to break off an earlier attempt to seize the capital, kyiv.
Despite Russia’s moves to improve its eastern battlefield prospects – amassing troops and firepower, streamlining command and control, and shaping shorter supply lines – its forces are still facing “considerable challenges”, according to the British assessment.
The Russian military command is merging and redeploying “exhausted and disparate units from failed advances” in the northeast of the country, the report said, adding that many of those units were likely suffering from low morale. He also cited inconsistent air support and a “lack of skills at the unit level”.
Another new analysis, from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, or ISW, said Ukrainian forces were “successfully slowing down” Russian attacks in eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s forces made limited advances west of the city of Severodonetsk, according to the analysis, but remained “stuck” at a strategic bottleneck, south of the town of Izyum.
Both assessments echoed observations made by the Pentagon, where a senior official said Russia’s push south from Izyum was only gaining “a few miles” per day.
Western analysts have suggested that agile tactics on the battlefield could help the Ukrainians inflict significant casualties on the Russians, as they did when kyiv was under threat. The front lines are fluid in places, with Ukrainian forces “carrying out a defensive maneuver rather than maintaining static positions”, according to the ISW assessment.
Neither side has a history of regularly releasing updated information on battlefield deaths. Ukraine was a bit more forthcoming, acknowledging significant numbers of dead and wounded among its own troops. However, Zelensky’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych on Friday called Russian losses “colossal”.
In an apparent effort to avoid further troop losses, Russia directed deadly artillery fire throughout the East. In Moscow, the Defense Ministry reported hitting 389 targets on Saturday, saying these included troop concentrations, weapons caches and crucial fuel depots.
Ukraine has acknowledged that attacks on fuel depots and refineries cause fuel shortages. Long lines of cars and trucks formed at gas stations in various parts of the country.
Zelensky said in his overnight speech that increased allied shipping and other measures should ease shortages over the next week or two, but Ukrainian officials have meanwhile asked citizens to avoid unnecessary travel in private vehicles.
“Remember the needs of the army,” urged an official Ukrainian government statement on the Telegram messaging app.
In the strike on Odessa, which remains in Ukrainian hands after being threatened earlier in the war, local officials said the airport’s main runway had become unusable.
In Lviv, near the Polish border, a celebrity gave brief respite from war anxiety and sparked a social media wave. Angelina Jolie, the American actor, was spotted in a cafe, Lviv Croissants, on Saturday afternoon. Videos and photographs on social media showed her signing a few autographs and posing with Ukrainian customers at the store, then meeting children.
Jolie has served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations refugee agency and has visited refugees from other conflicts around the world. But a spokesman for the organization, Chris Boian, said by phone that Jolie was in Ukraine “totally on her own initiative” and that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was not involved.
King reported from Lviv and Wilkinson from Washington.