Russia has increased the intensity of its eastern offensive but has been repeatedly repelled by Ukrainian forces, the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has said, as western governments pledged to send more artillery, and a new deadline for surrender in Mariupol approached.
The MoD said late on Tuesday that shelling and strikes were increasing over the line of control in Donbas but that Russian forces continued to be hampered by logistical and technological problems. It also noted an “inability to stamp out resistance” in Mariupol as a sign of failure to achieve Moscow’s objectives.
The Russian defense ministry has said it will offer the besieged port city a ceasefire on Wednesday to allow Ukrainian defenders holed up in the Azovstal steelworks to lay down their arms. About 1,000 civilians are reportedly hiding in underground shelters beneath the steel plant in Mariupol, according to the city council. Most of the civilians are believed to be women with children and elderly people.
A commander for the Ukrainian marines in Mariupol said his forces were “maybe facing our last days, if not hours” and appealed for extraction in a Facebook post published early on Wednesday.
“The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one,” Serhiy Volyna from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade said, sheltering at the vast plant with underground tunnels where Ukrainian defenders are pinned down by Russian fighters.
“We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us,” Volyna said in the video. “We ask them to use the procedure of extraction and take us to the territory of a third-party state.”
Russia said it would begin a ceasefire at 2pm Moscow time on Wednesday (11am GMT) and claimed it would let fighters surrender and leave unharmed. A previous offer was made and rejected on Tuesday, Russia said.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has promised that his forces in Mariupol would “fight to the end” and ignore any surrender ultimatums from Moscow but that the situation there was “as severe as possible” because Russian forces were blocking humanitarian corridors from being set up .
In his latest address on Tuesday night, Zelenskiy said: “The Russian army will forever inscribe itself in world history as perhaps the most barbaric and inhuman army in the world. Deliberately killing civilians, destroying residential quarters and civilian infrastructure, and using all kinds of weapons, including those prohibited by international conventions, is already the brand signature of the Russian army.”
Russia has denied using banned weapons or targeting civilians in its invasion of Ukraine and says, without evidence, that signs of atrocities were staged.
Thousands of Russian troops backed by artillery and rocket barrages are advancing in what Ukrainian officials have called the Battle of the Donbas. Russia’s nearly eight-week-long invasion has failed to capture any of Ukraine’s largest cities, forcing Moscow to refocus in and around separatist regions. This week the small city of Kreminna, home to 18,000 people, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region fell.
Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces had attacked “from all sides”. He added: “It is impossible to calculate the number of dead among the civilian population. We have official statistics – about 200 dead – but in reality there are many more,” he said.
The coal- and steel-producing Donbas has been the focal point of Russia’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine since 2014, when the Kremlin used proxies to set up so-called “people’s republics” in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Russia was hitting Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant with bunker-buster bombs, a Ukrainian presidential adviser said late on Tuesday. “The world watches the murder of children online and remains silent,” adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter. The details could not immediately be verified.
Video released by Ukraine’s Azov battalion purported to show people living in the underground network beneath the steel plant, where they say hundreds of women, children and elderly civilians are sheltering with diminishing supplies.
The Russian push in the east came as the United States, Canada and Britain said they would send more artillery for use by Ukrainian forces. British prime minister Boris Johnson has said he plans to equip Kyiv with anti-ship missiles and armored missile launchers – including by mounting British Brimstone rockets to vehicles.
Brimstones have previously been used by UK forces in Libya and Syria, and are typically launched from fast jet aircraft against fast-moving land and sea targets. Stormer High Velocity Missile (HVM) launchers will also be sent, which uses Starstreak missiles to take down low-flying aircraft.
The Pentagon confirmed on Tuesday that some countries had sent Ukraine’s additional military aircraft as well as spare parts to repair damaged aircraft.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not offer details on which countries provided aircraft, but acknowledged new transfers and said Ukraine had more operable fighter aircraft than it had two weeks ago. He clarified that Washington had not provided any aircraft to Kyiv but had “helped with the trans-shipment of some additional spare parts”.
US President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new military aid package about the same size as last week’s $800m one in the coming days, multiple sources told Reuters.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would provide finance to help Ukraine buy German-made weapons.
In other developments:
Russia has deployed up to 20,000 mercenaries from Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the Donbas region, sent into battle with no heavy equipment or armored vehicles, according to a European official. The mercenaries are being sent in as part of what western defense officials have described as a rush to have a victory that Vladimir Putin can announce at the 9 May military parade in Moscow commemorating the second world war.
Russian tycoon Oleg Tinkov, one of Russia’s best-known entrepreneurs and founder of the Tinkoff bank, has urged the west to help end “this insane war”. Tinkoff, who now lives outside Russia, claimed online that 90% of Russians were “against this war” and called Russia’s forces a “shit army”.
Western nations are preparing to stage coordinated walk-outs and other snubs at Wednesday’s meeting of G20 finance ministers in Washington to protest against Russia’s diplomatic invasion of Ukraine. US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen will boycott some sessions if Russian officials are present, one senior US official said, a stance other countries have said they will follow.
Kyiv and Moscow have not held face-to-face talks since 29 March. Each side blames the other for their breakdown. “Obviously, against the backdrop of the Mariupol tragedy, the negotiation process has become even more complicated,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Podolyak told Reuters.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called for a four-day humanitarian pause in the fighting this weekend, when Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, to allow civilians to escape and humanitarian aid to be delivered.