Russia presses on eastern front and targets final fighters in Mariupol
By Michael Schwirtz and Dan Bilefsky
In an apparent effort to secure something that President Vladimir Putin can claim as a victory before a highly symbolic holiday, Russian forces Thursday were mounting ferocious attacks along a sprawling eastern front, launching missiles at a strategic city and making a final, potentially bloody push to seize the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Though Moscow’s renewed offensive has yet to yield major gains, Russian forces pressing into Ukraine from the east took aim at the city of Kramatorsk and, to the south in Mariupol, breached Ukrainian defenses around the Azovstal steel plant, where only fighters holed up in underground bunkers stand in the way of Moscow declaring complete control over the ruined city.
Russia’s violent push was evident in the eastern Donbas region, where, at a field hospital near the front line, one Ukrainian soldier lay curled in a fetal position with a concussion. Another was in a black body bag, his face half torn away.
A Ukrainian commander, Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, said heavy battles were also being fought in Mariupol in the Azovstal plant’s subterranean labyrinth of bunkers and fallout shelters. Officials estimated that about 200 civilians were still hiding with the last soldiers defending the city, which has suffered one of the more searing humanitarian crises of the 10-week-old war.
There are growing fears among Western officials that Putin could use Victory Day, a Russian holiday commemorating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany, on Monday to turn what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine into explicit, all-out war. On Wednesday, the Kremlin dismissed such concerns as “nonsense.”
In other major developments:
— The Israeli government said Thursday that Putin apologized to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel for remarks by Russia’s top diplomat that Jews were “the biggest antisemites.” The Kremlin acknowledged that Putin discussed the Holocaust with Bennett but did not mention an apology.
— The United States, for the first time since the war began in February, is leading a U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Thursday afternoon.
— The New York Times reported that the United States had provided Ukraine with real-time intelligence that U.S. officials said had led to the killings of Russian generals, another sign of the deepening Western commitment to Kyiv.
— The European Union ban on Russian oil proposed Wednesday by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to be approved by member states within days. The phased-in ban would limit Russia’s ability to finance the war, though not immediately.