ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Ukrainian civilians evacuated from the ruined city of Mariupol took with them new tales of survival and terror on Monday as Western nations scrambled to fulfill their ever-expanding pledges of aid, preparing billions of dollars in military and economic aid, an oil embargo and other once unthinkable measures.
Despite the early morning shelling, the aborted evacuation, overseen by the Red Cross and the United Nations, was seen as the best and perhaps the last hope for hundreds of civilians who have been trapped for weeks in bunkers under the wreckage of the Azovstal steelworks, and an unknown number which are scattered around the ruins of the largely abandoned city.
Those who had been trapped in Mariupol outside the steelworks described a fragile existence, subsisting on Russian rations cooked outside over log fires amid daily shelling that left corpses lying in the rubble .
Yelena Gibert, a psychologist who reached Ukrainian-held territory on Monday with her teenage son, described “hopelessness and hopelessness” in Mariupol, and said locals were “starting to talk about suicide because they are stuck in this situation”.
Heavy fighting in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has brought only minimal gains to the forces of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, according to Western officials. But the Russians continued to fire rockets and shells at Ukrainian military positions, towns, villages and infrastructure along a 300-mile front, including shelling the Azovstal factory, where the last fighters remaining Ukrainians in Mariupol are entrenched.
On Monday, Ukraine said it used Turkish-made drones to destroy two Russian patrol boats off the Black Sea port of Odessa just before Russian missiles hit the city, causing an unknown number of casualties and damage to a religious building.
The US State Department has said Russia’s war aims now include the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk – partially controlled before the February 24 invasion by Russian-backed separatists – by mid-May, and possibly also the southern region of Kherson.
“We think the Kremlin might try to hold sham referendums to try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy, and that’s straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook,” said Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the EU. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. , told reporters at a State Department briefing in Washington.
As the war drags on and evidence of atrocities mounts, the West’s appetite for retaliation that would have been dismissed out of hand just months ago has grown. The US Senate is preparing to resume President Biden’s $33 billion aid package for Ukraine, including a significant increase in heavy weapons, and the European Union is expected to impose an embargo on Russian oil this week, a milestone for a bloc whose members have long depended on Russian energy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, days after becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Kyiv since the start of the war, met with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on Monday, aiming to strengthen the partnership of Washington with a key NATO ally that has absorbed millions. Ukrainian refugees and helped bring weapons to the battlefield.
Ms Pelosi called for “the strongest possible military response, the strongest sanctions” to punish Russia for the invasion, despite threats of retaliation from Moscow against the West. “They have already carried out their threat which has killed children and families, civilians and the rest,” she said.
More than two months into the invasion, Russia is struggling to capture and hold territory, according to a senior Pentagon official who briefed reporters on the background to discuss intelligence. The official called the latest Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, the region known as Donbass, “very cautious, very lukewarm” and, in some cases, “anaemic”.
“We are seeing minimal progress at best,” the official said Monday, citing incremental Russian advances in towns and villages. “They will come in, declare victory, then withdraw their troops, to let the Ukrainians take it.”
Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency said that of the 120 battalion tactical groups Russia had used during the war – around 65% of its entire ground combat force – more than a quarter were likely to have been “rendered the fight ineffective”.
Some of Russia’s most elite units, including its airborne forces, have “suffered the highest levels of attrition”, UK assessment saidadding that it would “probably take Russia years to rebuild those forces.”
As fighting raged in eastern and southern Ukraine, Moscow faced a mounting diplomatic backlash on Monday after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said Jews were “ the greatest anti-Semites”.
Lavrov made the remarks on Sunday to an Italian TV reporter who asked him why Russia was claiming to “denazify” Ukraine when its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was Jewish and his family members had been killed in the The Shoah.
Mr Lavrov replied that he believed Hitler himself had Jewish roots, a claim dismissed by historians, and added: “For a long time we have heard from the wise Jewish people that the greatest anti-Semites are the Jews. themselves.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to Israel to explain Mr. Lavrov’s remarks, while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid demanded an apology. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said of Mr Lavrov’s remarks: “The purpose of such lies is to accuse the Jews themselves of the most horrific crimes in history, which have been perpetrated against them. .
Senator Chuck Schumer, Majority Leader and the highest elected Jew in the United States, called Mr Lavrov’s comments “disgusting”.
Those who escaped Mariupol and reached the southern city of Zaporizhzhia had managed to survive in a Russian-occupied city crushed by heavy shelling, where Ukrainian authorities say more than 20,000 civilians were killed. About 20 civilians who were sheltering under the Azovstal mill came out of the town on Saturday, about 100 did so on Sunday and an unknown number followed on Monday.
Every morning around 6 a.m., Ms. Gibert said, residents outside the factory lined up to receive rations handed out by Russian soldiers. They had to listen to the Russian national anthem first, then the anthem of the breakaway Ukrainian region known as the Donetsk People’s Republic, she said.
A number was scribbled on each resident’s hand and then they waited, sometimes all day, for boxes of food, Ms Gibert said. Inside a typical ration box were macaroni, rice, oatmeal, canned meat, sweetened and condensed milk, sugar, butter. It was supposed to last a month, but that wasn’t always the case, especially when shared with a teenager, Ms Gibert said.
In a town where many residential buildings have been destroyed and the rest lack electricity, heat or, most of the time, running water, Ms Gibert said she and her son were among the lucky ones.
“Our apartment is still partially intact,” she said. “On one side we have all our windows.”
Anastasiya Dembitskaya, 35, who reached Zaporizhzhia with her two children and a dog, said a drop in fighting in Mariupol in recent weeks had allowed patchy phone service to return and small markets to open , selling Russian and Ukrainian food under Russian control. territory at stratospheric prices.
“They have started to at least remove the garbage, which is good,” Ms Dembitskaya said. “The bodies and the trash and the wires that were lying around.”
Ksenia Safonova, who also arrived in Zaporizhzhia, said she and her parents wanted to leave Mariupol weeks ago but were stymied by rocket fire.
“When we tried to leave, heavy shelling started,” she said. “Everything was exploding. Jets were flying overhead and it was too scary to leave.
When food became scarce, she said, her family relied on rations distributed by Russian troops. She pulled out a tin of meat that she said was part of a Russian humanitarian aid program. Its expiration date was January 31, nearly a month before the invasion began.
Ms Safonova and her family were finally able to leave Mariupol on April 26 in a minibus with six other people. At checkpoints on the way to Zaporizhzhia, she said, Russian soldiers insulted her and her family, warning that Ukrainian forces would not welcome them and might shell them when they arrived.
Once, she says, soldiers tried to trick them into revealing their loyalty to Ukraine.
“At a checkpoint they shouted ‘Glory to Ukraine’, to see if we were going to shout ‘Glory to the heroes’, although of course we knew it would end badly,” she said. , referring to a patriotic greeting among Ukrainians that became widespread during the war.
“We always know the truth is on our side,” she said.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by Lara Jacques and Eric Schmitt from washington, Myra Noveck of Jerusalem, Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland, Monika Pronczuk of Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.