Russian and Ukrainian troops clashed on a 300-mile battlefront in the east of the country on Saturday, where Ukraine said it repelled numerous attacks but faced renewed shelling in the crippled city of Mariupol, the Black Sea port of Odessa and beyond.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, said two senior US officials – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III – would arrive in the capital, Kyiv, on Sunday in what would be the delegation at the highest level. sent by President Biden since the start of the war two months ago.
Several other world leaders have made the trip in recent weeks to meet with Zelensky, increasing pressure on Washington to follow suit. Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department has publicly confirmed the trip.
Moscow continues its offensive in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine as it seeks to take full control of the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, known together as the Donbass.
Western analysts and officials said Russia had not made major territorial gains since Monday, when both sides said fighting in the east had entered a new phase. Russia has redeployed its forces to focus on the east after failing last month to seize kyiv.
Just outside Donbass, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv in the northeast, is partially blocked by Russian forces, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday. The city, once home to nearly 1.5 million people, has been pounded by almost non-stop shelling since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
In the southeast, the devastated port city of Mariupol remains contested, Ukraine said on Saturday despite Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s recent claim of victory. But the situation was dire: Russia continued to bombard the giant steelworks where recalcitrant Ukrainian forces and an unknown number of civilians were entrenched. Late Saturday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had attempted to storm the factory complex in a last-ditch effort to crush resistance.
A new assessment from British military intelligence early on Saturday said heavy fighting was still going on in Mariupol, despite Russia’s “declared conquest” of the city.
Another assessment, from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, predicted that Russia would “starve” the remaining defenders and the civilians trapped alongside it. Putin ordered a strict blockade of the steel plant, the last redoubt of the Ukrainians, which is a vast complex of structures above and below ground.
Communications have been largely cut off for weeks with Mariupol, strategically located on the Sea of Azov, and the horrors of the weeks of bombardment and siege are only now beginning to be fully uncovered. Satellite imagery revealed at least one mass grave on the outskirts of town, and The Associated Press reported that another mass burial site had been detected.
City officials said around 20,000 people died in the siege of the city, which lasted for most of the duration of the war. Control of Mariupol is vital to Russia’s goal of connecting the part of Donbass it controls with the Crimean peninsula, which it seized and annexed eight years ago.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were trying to get some civilians out of Mariupol on Saturday, but she warned on Telegram that the Russians were trying to divert some of those fleeing, pushing them to areas controlled by Russians. Later reports indicated that the evacuation efforts again failed.
Russia signaled on Friday a potential expansion of its war aims, with a senior officer saying Moscow was also seeking a land corridor linking the Donbass with Russian separatist territory in neighboring Moldova to the west. This would involve seizing the entire southern coast of Ukraine, including the coveted port city of Odessa, which would leave the country landlocked.
Indeed, Russian forces hit the city with a barrage of missiles. Ukrainian officials said a 3-month-old baby was among the five people killed. Zelensky seemed particularly touched by the defeat.
“The war started when this baby was 1 month old,” the president said. “Can you imagine what is happening? … They’re just bastards.
Western governments, including the US administration, on Friday called on Russia to respect Moldova’s sovereignty. The small and poor ex-Soviet republic said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to express “deep concern” over comments about its breakaway region.
It was unclear, however, whether the Russian general’s remarks represented a new official policy on Moscow’s war aims. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.
As new evidence is revealed daily of atrocities committed against civilians by Russian troops in territory they previously occupied or now control, Zelensky reiterated his call for accountability for war crimes.
“The occupiers are trying to achieve a primitive goal – to kill as many as possible and destroy everything they see,” Zelensky said.
Investigators are at work in Bucha and other satellite towns and suburbs of Kyiv, documenting evidence of execution-style killings of civilians and other atrocities. More than 1,200 people were reportedly killed during a Russian occupation of areas near kyiv that lasted about a month.
In eastern Ukraine, the British military intelligence assessment reported “no major gains in the past 24 hours as Ukrainian counterattacks continue to hamper their efforts”.
With punitive Russian artillery fire targeting towns and villages in the Luhansk region, its governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said on television on Saturday that in some areas Ukrainian troops have retreated to new defensive lines. The front line was fluid, with some territories changing hands several times.
Moscow’s forces are still massing in preparation for an expected wider attack. Ukrainian officials say some Russian units are being moved from Mariupol to other parts of the east. Pentagon officials had anticipated such a change once Russia was convinced it had conquered Mariupol.
The Kremlin is also dealing with the consequences of one of its biggest symbolic defeats of the war: the sinking of its Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, in what the government in kyiv and Western military officials say Ukrainian missile strike.
More than a week after the sinking of the ship, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the death of one sailor and declared 27 others missing, although a large number of them were apparently still missing. The crew consisted of nearly 500 sailors, and some families took to social media to express their anguish over the still unknown fate of loved ones among the crew.
Efforts to end the war through negotiation have so far been unsuccessful, but UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is due to meet in the coming week – separately – with Zelensky and Putin. The UN said the talks in the countries’ respective capitals will focus on a ceasefire and efforts to pull civilians out of the combat zone.
Sunday is Easter for most Orthodox Christians, a major religion in Ukraine and Russia.
In the town of Borodyanka, near Bucha, churches were collecting donations of holiday cakes and other food. With spring in the air, Inna Korohodina, 45, was planting potatoes with her husband and daughter at her parents’ house, where the family was trapped when the Russians arrived in town last month.
“These potatoes saved our lives,” she said. “If we hadn’t had the potatoes, we would be starving.”
Next door, Valentyna, 82, was also working in the garden. She had been left alone in her house, subsisting on salted cucumbers, potatoes and buckwheat, and had only ventured out once, to share her only loaf of bread with a neighbor. “I was scared, but I was more worried about my kids,” she said, declining to give her last name.
Less than a mile away, at the city cemetery, around 50 people gathered for the funeral of a mother, father and son who died in a Russian missile attack on their building. The woman, Halyna Bobrovskiy, 59, was a local family doctor.
Flocks of birds flew over the city as the sun rose for the first time in many weeks.
Bulos reported from Kramatorsk, Cole from Borodyanka and King from Berlin. Writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.