RUBIZHNE, Ukraine —
Russia delivered what it said was a last-chance surrender ultimatum Wednesday to Ukrainian forces in the besieged port of Mariupol, whose desperate defenders, pleading for international help, declared that they were “probably facing our last days, if not hours.”
Along hundreds of miles of a scythe-shaped battlefront in Ukraine’s east, the din of Russian bombardment echoed in cities and towns, while Moscow’s ground forces made a series of what Ukrainian military officials described as probing attacks that did not yield any substantial new territorial gains.
With the war about to grind into a ninth week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the nation that nearly all Russia’s combat-ready forces were “concentrated on the territory of our state” and just outside its borders. Moscow, he said, was deploying “almost everyone and everything that is capable of fighting.”
Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of its smaller neighbor has triggered a refugee crisis on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. The United Nations’ refugee agency Wednesday put the total of those fleeing Ukraine at 5 million. More than 7 million are internally displaced.
As the fighting’s ferocity has increased — and in the weeks since gruesome evidence began emerging of Russian atrocities against civilians in the suburbs of Kyiv — diplomatic efforts have floundered. On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blamed Ukraine for the impasse, saying that Moscow had sent Zelensky’s government a draft document with “absolutely clear” proposals and that Ukraine had not answered.
“The ball is in their court,” Peskov told reporters. In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow of distorting what was said in negotiations.
Less than three weeks remain before the symbolically crucial date of May 9, when Russia annually celebrates its historic victory over Nazi Germany. Russian President Vladimir Putin is thought to be determined to notch a significant triumph by then in a military campaign in Ukraine that has been plagued by setbacks for Moscow.
The likeliest prospect of that is the capture of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov that has been nearly wiped off the map by continuous Russian bombardment. In a message recorded deep within a sprawling steelworks where Ukrainian forces and some frightened civilians are holed up, a Ukrainian commander said the defenders were outnumbered 10 to 1 by Russian attackers.
“We are probably facing our last days, if not hours,” the officer, Serhiy Volnya of the 36th Marine Brigade, said in the video, which was posted on Facebook. He pleaded with world leaders to arrange for Ukrainian forces remaining in the steel plant and its underground tunnels to be extracted and taken “to the territory of a third-party state.”
Russia has been dropping heavy bombs on the steel complex as it issues repeated surrender demands, promising that holdouts who give up would be unharmed. Ukraine says a Mariupol hospital where hundreds of civilians had taken shelter was also targeted. But previous ultimatums, on Sunday and Tuesday, were ignored by the Ukrainian side, as was Wednesday’s.
Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said on national television Wednesday that Ukrainian officials hoped to bring out 6,000 women, children and elderly people from the city, but said the arrangement with Russia to allow safe passage was a preliminary one. Tens of thousands of residents remain trapped in the city under dire conditions, without access to drinking water, food or medical supplies.
Mariupol, a once-thriving port city of nearly half a million people, now lies in ruins, with three-quarters of its prewar population either displaced or dead, but is still considered a strategic prize. Capturing it would allow the creation of a land corridor linking Russian-controlled parts of the Donbas — Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland — to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago.
While Russia was focusing its “main effort” on capturing Mariupol, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces were also making repeated thrusts in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the Donbas. Ten Russian ground attacks were repulsed in the previous 24 hours, the military said in an operational report early Wednesday.
Since both sides declared Monday that the war had entered a new phase, Russian forces have captured Kreminna, an eastern town of about 18,000 people on the front lines.
Although some Western officials and analysts have questioned whether the Russian offensive in the east was underway in earnest, British military intelligence said in a new assessment that fighting in the Donbas was growing in intensity, with Russian forces seeking to break through Ukrainian defenses and disrupt supply lines and troop redeployment on the Ukrainian side.
“Russian attacks on cities across Ukraine show their attempt to try and disrupt the movement of Ukrainian reinforcements and weaponry to the east of the country,” the assessment said.
Supply and reinforcement, combined with serious morale problems, were key weaknesses in Russia’s own drive to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, an effort that Moscow abandoned a month ago. Analysts say those same issues could plague Moscow’s efforts in the east as well.
But vast tracts of open territory and superior firepower could favor the Russian push in the east — the main reason that Zelensky has been making near-daily pleas for more heavy weaponry from the West.
“If we had access to all the weapons we need, which our partners have and which are comparable to the weapons used by the Russian Federation, we would have already ended this war,” he said in his overnight address.
The United States, Canada and Britain have promised Ukraine more artillery, and Norway is sending air-defense missiles. In addition to new sanctions on Russia that the White House says are in the works, President Biden is expected to announce a new military aid package for Kyiv in coming days.
Some allied countries, including Germany, have been name-checked by Ukrainian officials as flagging in their provision of armaments just when the need is greatest. Seemingly stung by the criticism, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday cited recent shipments of antitank weapons and Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Ukraine.
Baerbock, speaking at the start of a visit to the three Baltic states, said Germany was also providing “other things that we didn’t talk about in public.”
Despite renewed bombardment this week of the Ukrainian capital, Western VIPs continue to arrive. Charles Michel, head of the European Council, on Wednesday became the latest senior European official to make a visit to Kyiv aimed at showing support for Ukraine.
Bulos reported from Rubizhne and King from Berlin.