Ukrainian and Russian forces engaged in heavy fighting Thursday in the battle for the sprawling steel mill that represents the last holdout in the beleaguered city of Mariupol, as signs pointed to an increasingly dire situation for the resistance.
Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, a leader of the Azovstal steel plant’s defenders, said he told her in a call from inside that he would love her forever. “It seemed like words of goodbye,” she said.
Earlier Thursday, the deputy commander of the regiment, Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, pleaded for the evacuation of civilians in a video statement from a bunker and said “wounded soldiers are dying in agony” due to the lack of medical care.
The bloody battle came amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to present the Russian people with a battlefield triumph — or announce an escalation of the war — in time for Victory Day on Monday. That is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar, marking the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany.
The estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters and a few hundred civilians remaining at the steel mill after weeks of ferocious bombardment were betrayed by an electrician who showed Russian troops the underground tunnels that lead to the factory, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry. Russian forces first breached the compound Tuesday.
“Yesterday, the Russians started storming these tunnels, using the information they received from the betrayer,” Gerashchenko said in a video posted late Wednesday.
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►The U.N. food aid agency is appealing for Black Sea ports in Ukraine, blasted by Russian missiles and artillery, to be opened to permit shipping of wheat and corn exports, which many poor nations depend on. Corn and wheat prices have ballooned since the war began.
►Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who has expressed support for Russia in the war and whose country has been used as a staging ground for Russian troops, said he hadn’t expected the Russian offensive to “drag on this way.”
Targeting data provided by the U.S. helped Ukrainian forces last month sink the Moskva, flagship of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, NBC News reported Thursday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The Moskva’s sinking April 14 after being hit by two Neptune missiles represented a considerable military loss and even bigger embarrassment for Russia. The guided missile cruiser, named after the country’s capital, was the largest Russian vessel lost in combat in at least 40 years.
The U.S. confirmed the ship’s location to Ukraine but was not involved in the decision to strike it, the officials told NBC News.
Russian President Vladimir Putin apologized to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday for offensive remarks made by a top Kremlin official, according to an Israeli readout of a phone call between the two leaders.
The Russian account of the call did not mention any apology over the remarks, made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to an Italian TV station Sunday, including saying that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood.” Lavrov was arguing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is meant to “de-Nazify” the country even though its president is Jewish.
“For some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest anti-Semites were Jewish,” Lavrov added, speaking to the station in Russian.
The comments incensed the Israelis, who called it “unforgivable and outrageous” and demanded an apology.
Israel’s readout of the meeting between Bennett and Putin says, “The Prime Minister accepted President Putin’s apology for Lavrov’s remarks and thanked him for clarifying the President’s attitude towards the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”
The Russian readout says they talked about “the situation in Ukraine” but makes no mention of Lavrov’s remarks or an apology.
Some more residents are being allowed to flee from the bombarded Ukrainian city of Mariupol and its surroundings through a new “safe passage operation,” the United Nations said. Humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told The Associated Press the organization is coordinating the evacuation with the warring parties and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
It is not clear how many people are part of the evacuation and Abreu would not say whether anyone at the Azovstal steel plant is involved. A similar joint evacuation effort allowed 160 civilians to leave the plant and areas nearby over the weekend. Another one brought out more than 340 people from Mariupol and communities around it Wednesday.
Military leaders for both Ukraine and Russia claimed battlefield accomplishments Thursday.
The Ukrainian General Staff said in a Facebook post that Russian troops made “unsuccessful” attempts to advance in the eastern Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, and added that the invading forces continue to launch missile strikes on transport facilities to prevent the movement of humanitarian cargo and military-technical assistance.
The Ukrainians also said they have regained control of several settlements bordering the Kherson and Mykolayiv regions.
The Russians said their air force destroyed 45 Ukrainian military facilities while hitting Ukrainian troops and weapons concentrations and an ammunition depot in the eastern Luhansk region.
The claims could not be independently verified.
As the price of some food items around the world surges due to difficulty of obtaining Ukrainian grain, authorities in the country accused Russian invaders of stealing grain and farm equipment. Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotskiy, claimed “several hundred thousand tons of grain in total were taken out of the Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”
Emine Dzheppar, first deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, put the total amount of grain stolen by Russia at 400,000 tons, or about one-third of all reserves in the region.
“They force farmers to transfer agricultural machinery to ‘collective farms’ ownership, just like it was in the USSR,” Dzheppar tweeted. “Those who refuse to cooperate are threatened with physical violence and confiscation of grain and equipment.”
All Russian ammunition was banned from import into the U.S. as of Sept. 7, 2021. But the cheap 7.62 x 39 mm bullets – favored by many Americans for target practice with semiautomatic rifles – have kept flowing because of a State Department loophole allowing existing and pending import permits to stand. Russian brands such as Wolf, TulAmmo and Barnaul are easy to find at gun shops and U.S.-based online retailers.
The Biden administration announced the ban in August 2021 in reaction to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny the year before. The ban also came as intelligence agencies reported Russia amassing 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border.
The sanctions and the grandfathered Russian imports have split the top firearm lobbies and gun owners: Some take a hardline Second Amendment view, some fall on the side of democratic support for Ukraine, some seem to be torn between the two. Read more here
Authorities in Fiji executed a U.S. warrant “freezing” a superyacht valued at over $300 million allegedly owned by a Russian oligarch, the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday. A judge in Fiji permitted seizure of the 348-foot-long Amadea pending legal challenges from oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, sanctioned for alleged money laundering. The seizure was coordinated through the Justice Department’s KleptoCapture, a task force dedicated to enforcing the sweeping sanctions and economic countermeasures imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This ruling should make clear that there is no hiding place for the assets of individuals who violate U.S. laws. And there is no hiding place for the assets of criminals who enable the Russian regime,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “The Justice Department will be relentless in our efforts to hold accountable those who facilitate the death and destruction we are witnessing in Ukraine.”
Pro-Russian blogger Anatoly Shariy, accused of treason by his home country of Ukraine, was detained in Spain before being freed on bond. Ukraine’s security services announced the arrest Thursday and said there was reason to believe Shariy “was acting on behalf of foreign entities.” Shariy, a frequent critic of Ukraine’s government, tweeted Tuesday that “my only crime is that I have exposed you thieves too little.”
“This detention is another testimony to the fact that every traitor of Ukraine will sooner or later receive the deserved punishment,” the Ukraine agency said in a social media post. “It is irreversible.”
The Ukrainian city of Kherson is showing signs that Russia could be in control for the long term. The Russian currency is being introduced and reports are mounting that a sham referendum would be held to legitimize Russian annexation, some locals say. Military checkpoints are everywhere.
Kherson, a southern city of about 280,000 and home to ship-building industry on the Dnieper River, became the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces on March 2. Since then, Russia’s actions to cement control and warnings from U.S. and Ukrainian officials of possible annexation plans have ramped up fear and uncertainty in the strategic provincial capital.
After weeks under Russian occupation, Tetiana Danets decided it was time to flee Kherson. “If we don’t go now … we go never,” Danets, 22, told USA TODAY by phone on Monday from Romania, just over two weeks after she fled by car. Read more here.
– Chris Kenning
Belarus said it started military exercises Wednesday, insisting it has no plans to threaten any neighbors. Russia used Belarus as a staging ground in its invasion, and the U.S. government warned citizens not to travel to Belarus and closed its embassy there due to its involvement in the invasion. The military exercises would assess the readiness and capability of the country’s armed forces, and the military’s ability to operate on “unknown terrain in a rapidly changing situation,” the Belarusian Defense Ministry said.
It said the maneuvers “do not threaten the European community in general and any neighboring countries in particular.”
Contributing: The Associated Press