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People exit an evacuee bus in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, after fleeing Mariupol on March 19, 2022.STRINGER/Reuters

Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine’s besieged and battered port city of Mariupol on Saturday, where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help.

The fall of Mariupol, the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, would mark a major battlefield advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside major cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since the Second World War.

“Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it is wiped off the face of the earth,” Mariupol police officer Michail Vershnin said from a rubble-strewn street in a video addressed to Western leaders that was authenticated by The Associated Press.

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Russian forces have already cut the city off from the Sea of Azov, and its fall would link Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in the east. It would mark a rare advance in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance that has dashed Russia’s hopes for a quick victory and galvanized the West.

Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Saturday. “One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” Denysenko said in televised remarks.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol’s defenders were already struggling against “the overwhelming force of the enemy” or at least 100 kilometres away.

“There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” he said late Friday. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”

Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky has remained defiant, appearing in a video early Saturday shot on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, to denounce a huge Friday rally in Moscow that Russian President Vladimir Putin attended.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears in a video address in Kyiv in an image released on March 19, 2022.HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

Zelensky said Russia is trying to starve Ukraine’s cities into submission but warned that continuing the invasion would exact a heavy toll on Russia. He also repeated his call for Putin to meet with him to prevent more bloodshed.

“The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s costs will be so high that you will not be able to rise again for several generations,” he said.

Putin lavished praise on his country’s military during the rally, which took place on the anniversary of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The event included patriotic songs such as “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” with its opening line of “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”

“We have not had unity like this for a long time,” Putin told the cheering crowd.

The rally took place as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home, where Russian police have detained thousands of antiwar protesters.

Estimates of Russian deaths vary widely, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands. Russia had 64 deaths in five days of fighting during its 2008 war with Georgia. It lost about 15,000 in Afghanistan over 10 years, and more than 11,000 over years of fighting in Chechnya.

The Russian military said Saturday that it used its latest hypersonic missile for the first time in combat. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Kinzhal missiles destroyed an underground warehouse storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine.

Russia has said the Kinzhal, carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, has a range of up to 2,000 km and flies at 10 times the speed of sound.

Meanwhile, fighting raged on multiple fronts in Ukraine. UN organizations have confirmed more than 847 civilian deaths since the war began, though they concede the actual toll is likely much higher. The UN says more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees.

The northwestern Kyiv suburbs of Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin and Moshchun were under fire on Saturday, the Kyiv regional administration reported. It said Slavutich, located 165 km north of the capital, was “completely isolated.”

Police of the Kyiv region said seven people were killed and five were wounded in a mortar attack on Friday in Makariv, a town roughly 50 km west of the capital. They said the attack destroyed homes and damaged other buildings.

Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish 10 humanitarian corridors for bringing aid in and residents out of besieged cities – one from Mariupol and several around Kyiv and in the eastern Luhansk region, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Saturday.

She also announced plans to deliver humanitarian aid to the southern city of Kherson, which Russia seized early in the war.

Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of negotiations aimed at ending the conflict but remain divided over several issues, with Russia pressing for its neighbour’s demilitarization and Kyiv demanding security guarantees.

In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, Putin said Ukraine was trying to “drag the negotiations by making a series of new, unrealistic proposals,” according to the Kremlin.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, meanwhile, accused Putin of using the talks as a “smokescreen” while his forces regroup. “We don’t see any serious withdrawal of Russian troops or any serious proposals on the table,” she told the Times of London.

The British Department of Defence said in its latest intelligence assessment that the Kremlin “has been surprised by the scale and ferocity of Ukrainian resistance” and “is now pursuing a strategy of attrition” that is likely to involve indiscriminate attacks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a Saturday visit to NATO ally Bulgaria, said the Russian invasion had “stalled on a number of fronts”, but the U.S. had not yet seen signs that Putin was deploying additional forces.

Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked.

At least 130 people survived the Wednesday bombing of a Mariupol theatre that was being used a shelter, but another 1,300 were believed to be still inside, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday.

“We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them,” Denisova told Ukrainian television.

Satellite view from March 18, 2022, shows cars trying to evacuate Mariupol as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues.MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/Reuters

Satellite images from Maxar Technologies showed a long line of cars leaving Mariupol as people tried to evacuate. Zelensky said more than 9,000 people were able to leave Friday along a route that leads 227 km away to the city of Zaporizhzhia – which is also under attack.

The governor of southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, announced a 38-hour curfew after two missile strikes on Zaporizhzhia’s suburbs killed nine people Friday.

Russian forces have fired on eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region in the past 24 hours, including Mariupol, Ukraine’s national police said Saturday.

The attacks with rockets and heavy artillery killed and wounded dozens of civilians, and damaged at least 37 residential buildings and facilities, including a school, a museum and a shopping centre, it said.

In the western city of Lviv, Ukraine’s cultural capital, which was hit by Russian missiles on Friday, military veterans were training dozens of civilians on how to handle firearms and grenades.

“It’s hard, because I have really weak hands, but I can manage it,” said one trainee, 22-year-old Katarina Ishchenko.