Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine
Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine’s besieged and battered port city of Mariupol on Saturday, where heavy fighting shut down a large 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.
Details also began to emerge on Saturday, with a rocket attack feared to have killed dozens of marines in the southern city of Mykolaiv on Friday, a Ukrainian military official told The New York Times.
Russian forces have already cut Mariupol 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 galvanised the West.
Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Saturday. “One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” he said.
The Mariupol city council claimed hours later that Russian soldiers had forcibly relocated several thousand city residents, mostly women and children, to Russia. It didn’t say where in Russia and the Associated Press could not immediately confirm the claim.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelenskyy, 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 way.
“There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” he said. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”
Mr Zelenskyy has remained defiant, appearing in a video early on Saturday that was shot on the streets of the capital Kyiv.
President Zelenskyy said the Russian army was 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet 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.
Mr Putin appeared on Friday at a rally where he lavished praise on his country’s military.
“We have not had unity like this for a long time,” Mr 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 police have detained thousands of anti-war protesters.
Estimates of Russian deaths vary widely, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands. Russia counted 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.