Planet Labs PBC via AP
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Saturday and shelled a steel mill in Mariupol housing Ukrainian civilians and fighters, hoping to finish off their conquest of the port city in time for VE Day celebrations. Ukraine announced that all women, children and the elderly had been evacuated from the steelworks, a key Russian war objective that has long been under siege.
In a sign of the unexpectedly effective defense that sustained the fighting into its 11th week, the Ukrainian army razed Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the early days of the war and is become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counteroffensive was also advancing around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key Russian bombing target. The Ukrainian military said it had regained control of five villages and part of a sixth near hotly contested Kharkiv.
As Russian holiday Mondays commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II approached, Ukrainian cities braced for an expected increase in Russian attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged residents numbed by more than 10 weeks of war to heed air raid warnings.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embodied the spirit of those who prevailed in World War II.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “distort history in an attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine”.
“As war once again rages in Europe, we must strengthen our resolve to stand up to those who now seek to manipulate historical memory in order to advance their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement released as the United States United and the United Kingdom marked the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago.
The most intense battles in recent days have taken place in eastern Ukraine, where both sides are entrenched in a fierce race to capture or reclaim territory. Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine has focused on reclaiming the industrial Donbass region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.
Moscow has also sought to sweep across southern Ukraine both to cut the country off from the sea and to connect its territory to the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, long a home of Russian troops. But he struggled to achieve those goals.
On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from planes hit the Odessa region, where authorities have put in place a curfew until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke rising over Odessa with sirens wailing in the background.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting Russian-held Snake Island in an effort to obstruct Russian efforts to control the Black Sea. A satellite image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s north beach.
The image matches Ukrainian military video showing a drone hitting the Russian vessel, engulfing it in flames. Snake Island, located about 35 kilometers (20 miles) off the coast, featured in a memorable incident early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, allegedly using a colorful language.
Against this background, Ukrainian fighters took a final stand to prevent a complete takeover of Mariupol. Securing the strategically important Sea of Azov port would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in a 2014 invasion.
New satellite photos analyzed by the AP showed vast devastation at a sprawling seaside steelworks that is the last corner of Ukrainian resistance in the city. The Azovstal factory buildings, including one that is believed to be hiding hundreds of fighters and civilians, had large gaping holes in the roof, according to footage shot Friday by Planet Labs PBC.
“The president’s order has been carried out: all women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal (steel plant),” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Saturday, without giving further details. “This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over.”
Russian news agency Tass reported that 50 civilians were evacuated from the factory on Saturday. A similar number left on Friday. The latest evacuees followed around 500 others who were allowed to leave the factory and other parts of the city in recent days.
The evacuation of civilians from the factory has caught the world’s attention, with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross desperately trying to organize departures.
In recent days, fighters inside the factory had described bringing out small groups of civilians who had been hiding for weeks. The fighters released a statement via social media saying they and the Russians had used a white flag system to stop the fighting to get civilians out.
But Russian forces have intensified fire on the steelworks in recent days with mortars, artillery, truck-mounted rocket systems, aerial bombardment and shelling from the sea, making evacuation operations difficult.
It remains unclear what will happen to the Ukrainian fighters there, both those still fighting and the hundreds who are believed to be injured. In recent days, the Ukrainian government has contacted various international organizations to try to guarantee them safe passage.
The flight of civilians is putting renewed pressure on Ukraine to find a way out for the fighters, who have vowed not to surrender. Russian forces had already probed the plant and even penetrated its maze of tunnels, according to Ukrainian officials.
The Ukrainian government has called on international organizations to also help evacuate the fighters defending the plant. According to Russia’s most recent estimate, about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained in the Azovstal steelworks. They repeatedly refused to surrender.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, although he did not mention any by name.
“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still in Azovstal,” he said in his nightly video address early Saturday.
The relief of those who were evacuated was tempered by the memory of those who remained.
“They really need our help,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, leaving 30 others behind. “We have to get them out.”
As they pounded at the factory, Russian forces struggled to make any significant gains elsewhere nearly 2½ months after a ruinous war that killed thousands, forced millions to flee the Ukraine and razed large areas of some cities.
Kharkiv, which was the first Soviet capital in Ukraine and had a pre-war population of around 1.4 million, remained a key Russian bombing target in the northeast. But Western military analysts said Ukrainian forces were making progress in securing positions around the town.
A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its latest assessment that the Ukrainian military may be able to push Russian forces “out of Kharkiv’s artillery range in the coming days”, offering respite to the city. and an opportunity to build defenders’ momentum “into a successful, wider counter-offensive”.
Separately, a Russian missile on Saturday destroyed a Ukrainian national museum dedicated to the life and work of an 18th-century philosopher, the local council said. He posted photographs on Facebook showing the Gregory Skovoroda Museum engulfed in flames.
As an indication of his importance to Ukraine’s cultural heritage, Skovoroda’s likeness adorns a Ukrainian banknote. The Skovorodynivka Museum is near the Russian border in the Kharkiv region where the fighting was fierce.
Zelenskyy said in his evening speech that “the extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in the fact that all countries in the free world understand what is at stake in this ruinous war.
“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything freedom gives to peoples and states,” said the Ukrainian leader. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully understandable for any society, in any corner of the globe.”
At the United Nations in New York, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its first statement on Ukraine on Friday, expressing “strong support” for the secretary-general’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the “dispute”. 10 weeks old.
Talks to end the war have stalled. Zelenskyy said on Friday he would be open to negotiations with Russia, but only if Moscow withdraws its forces to pre-invasion positions.
“In this situation, we can start talking normally,” Zelenskyy said during a meeting at the Chatham House think tank in London. Ukraine could then use “diplomatic channels” to regain its territory, he said.