ZAPORIZHZHIA: The ceasefire announced by Russia was due to begin Thursday at the beleaguered steelworks in the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol, to allow civilians to flee even as its defenders vow to fight to the end.
The three-day halt to Russia’s attack on the Azovstal steel plant was announced as EU member states debated a proposed Russian oil ban, the toughest decision in the block to date against the invasion of its neighbor by Moscow.
The EU has also pledged to “significantly increase” its support for neighboring Ukraine, Moldova, where a series of attacks in a Russian-backed separatist region have raised fears that a war that has claimed thousands of lives does not spread more than two months after it started.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that the bloc would “phase out Russian supplies of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of the year,” a move that would still not touch its huge gas exports.
But within hours Hungary – whose populist leader Viktor Orban is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s few European partners – said it could not support the plan “in this form” because it would “completely destroy “the security of its energy supply.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba countered that EU countries blocking an oil embargo would be “accomplices” in Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s allies have sent money and, increasingly, heavy weapons to kyiv to help it defend itself in a war that US President Joe Biden has called a historic battle for democracy.
Biden said on Wednesday he was “open” to imposing more sanctions on Russia and would discuss measures with allies from the Group of Seven democracies in the coming days.
But despite the severe blows to its economy and the failure of its early war aims, Russia continues to steadily hammer Ukraine’s beleaguered eastern defenses.
After failing to capture kyiv, Russia’s military campaign is now focused on unifying pro-Russian separatist areas to the east with Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
The strategic southern port of Mariupol became an emblem of the suffering of war, with countless dead and basic supplies cut as Moscow waged a scorched-earth campaign to wrest control.
The last Ukrainian soldiers are holding out at the Azovstal steelworks, where Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said there was heavy fighting on Wednesday.
Russia was attacking with heavy artillery, tanks, planes and ships off the coast, he told Ukrainian television.
“There are local residents there, civilians – hundreds of them there,” he added. “There are children waiting to be rescued. There are more than 30 children.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced a three-day ceasefire starting Thursday to evacuate civilians from the factory.
“The Russian Armed Forces will open a humanitarian corridor from 08:00 to 18:00 Moscow time (05:00 to 15:00 GMT) on May 5, 6 and 7 from the site of the Azovstal Metallurgical Plant to evacuate civilians,” the ministry said. .
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed skepticism about the ceasefire, saying Moscow had repeatedly resumed bombing after announcing pauses.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the nationalist regiment in Azov, has meanwhile sworn never to return the factory.
“The situation is extremely difficult. However, we will continue to carry out the order to maintain our defenses no matter what,” he said in a video.
The second stage of evacuation operations from Mariupol brought 344 newly liberated people to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday.
“They will all receive the necessary assistance, they will all receive the most attentive care from the government,” Zelensky said in a video address, adding that the imminent Azovstal ceasefire was desperately needed to free the civilians caught in the attack. trap.
“It takes time to get people out of those basements, those underground shelters,” he said.
“Under the current conditions, we cannot use special equipment to clean up the debris. Everything is done manually. »
Ukrainian military intelligence has accused Russia of planning to hold a parade in Mariupol on May 9 to celebrate the victory over the Nazis in World War II.
But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made no mention of a celebratory march through the city during a briefing on the army’s plan for May 9.
As the focus of the Russian invasion has shifted to eastern Ukraine, tension is steadily rising, with lesser but explosive strikes in some areas and increased fighting in others.
In no-man’s land near the southeast town of Pokrovska, the two sides are only a few kilometers apart, so close that Ukrainian troops with binoculars can see the Russians digging in their positions.
The thud of artillery exchanges adds to the strange salvo of rockets, but Ukrainian soldiers told AFP during a visit on Wednesday that there was almost no face-to-face fighting .
“At the moment they never come on foot, only artillery,” said Private Dmytro Sirenko, 40, as he looked in the direction of the Russians across a vast green expanse of farms, fields and occasional houses.
“We have time to entrench ourselves, hide and wait for the possible advance of the enemy,” he said, rifle in hand, as he stood in a fox hole recently dug.
Russian attacks also periodically move away from Ukraine’s western border with the EU.
Both sides reported Russian strikes on infrastructure around the western city of Lviv, near Poland, and Transcarpathia, a border region with Hungary, on Wednesday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its air and sea weapons destroyed six electrical substations near railway lines, including around Lviv, near Odessa to the south and near Dnipropetrovsk to the southeast.
He said Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbass region had used the train stations to transport weapons and ammunition from the west.
In Ukraine’s western neighbour, Moldova, there are fears that the conflict will spill over the border.
Visiting the tiny former Soviet republic on Wednesday, European Council President Charles Michel offered “full solidarity” and EU support, including logistics, cyber defense and military equipment.
Ukraine has accused Russia of wanting to destabilize the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria to create a pretext for military intervention.
Moscow said on Wednesday that its forces had practiced simulated nuclear-capable missile strikes in the Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, located between EU and NATO member states Poland and Lithuania.
The announcement came on the 70th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which displaced more than 13 million people in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
During the Kaliningrad War Games, Russia practiced simulated “electronic launches” of nuclear-capable Iskander mobile ballistic missile systems, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Russian President Putin has issued thinly veiled threats hinting at a drive to deploy tactical nuclear weapons since invading Ukraine and warned of ‘lightning-fast’ retaliation if the West intervenes directly.