Ukrainian troops clung to control of a strategic steel plant in Mariupol on Thursday, as an unrelenting Russian assault tried to push the defenders away from the port city’s final stronghold and deliver the Kremlin a victory days ahead of a major Russian military holiday.
The fighting inside the Mariupol facility left civilians caught in the crossfire, Ukrainian officials said, as Russian forces targeted the site for the third straight day. The steel plant is the last area in Mariupol still under Ukrainian control, and its fall would be a blow to Kyiv, free up Russian forces to deploy to other parts of the region, and mark a rare win for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The pressure on Mr. Putin and his military leaders to deliver a victory grew more urgent Thursday as key Russian ally Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of neighboring Belarus, told reporters that he had not expected the invasion to “drag on this way.” His comments suggest that Minsk may be growing impatient with the 10-week war. Many military observers and foreign policy specialists predicted the war would end quickly given Russia‘s massive personnel and financial advantage.
But Belarusian forces also continued major military drills on Thursday, British military officials said, which could be designed to keep Ukrainian forces tied down in the north to repel a potential invasion across the Belarusian border. Those forces otherwise could be committed to the fight in Ukraine‘s divided eastern Donbas region, which has become Moscow’s primary target.
Inside the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, Ukrainian commanders said that Russian troops entered through tunnels with the help of an electrician familiar with the facility’s layout.
“It’s been the third day that the enemy has broken through to the territory of Azovstal. Fierce bloody combat is ongoing,” said Sviatoslav Palamar, the Azov regiment’s deputy commander, according to English-language media translations of his comments.
SEE ALSO: Pentagon denies it is helping Ukraine target Russian generals
He also accused the Russians of repeatedly violating an agreement to allow for the evacuation of civilians, an unknown number of whom remain trapped in the massive plant complex despite desperate efforts by international aid groups to get them out. City officials said at least 30 children are among those still inside.
“Once again, the Russians violated the promise of a truce and did not allow evacuation for civilians who continue to hide in the basements of the Azovstal plant. I call on the world community to evacuate civilians,” Mr. Palamar said.
An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers are holed up inside the facility. Their death or surrender would give Moscow full control of Mariupol and would allow Russian forces to create a land bridge from Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
For its part, the Pentagon pushed back Thursday against reports that it provided intelligence to Ukraine that allowed them to target the unusually high number of Russian generals who have been killed on the front lines since the invasion began eight weeks ago. Officials in Kyiv claim they have launched fatal strikes against at least 12 of Russia’s senior military brass in the Ukraine theater.
The New York Times said the targeting assistance is part of an effort by the Biden administration to provide “real-time” battlefield intelligence to Ukraine. The help reportedly includes identifying the location of the Russian military’s mobile headquarters in Ukraine and providing intercepted communications that alert Ukrainian officials to the presence of senior Russian officers.
But U.S. officials, sensitive to any suggestion of a direct clash between Russian and Western forces in the Ukraine fight, explicitly denied that was the case.
SEE ALSO: Ukraine ambassador stresses much-needed aid as $33 billion supplemental stalls on Hill
“We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield or participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday.
The Biden administration has sought to keep much of its battlefield intelligence operations in Ukraine secret out of a fear that it could be seen as provoking an escalation by Mr. Putin. Military officials have said one of the goals of the operation is to see Russia “weakened” to the point where it can no longer endanger its neighbors.
As Russian troops pressed ahead with their Mariupol offensive, Russian officials at home were left to contend with a growing rash of diplomatic fires across the globe.
The Russian government reportedly expelled seven Danish diplomats in a tit-for-tat move, deepening a rift between those two nations. Denmark last month expelled 15 Russian diplomats after reports that Russian forces had executed civilians in Bucha.
“According to the Russian side, the [Danish] kingdom’s overtly anti-Russian policies have been causing a major harm to bilateral relations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to the country’s state-run Tass News Agency.
The Kremlin found itself embroiled in other diplomatic controversies as well. Israeli government officials said that Mr. Putin personally apologized to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a phone call Thursday, according to the Jerusalem Post and other news outlets. Their conversation came just days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, in justifying the campaign against Kyiv, that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” and that the most “ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”
Mr. Putin has cited the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine‘s government as a war aim, though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and several members of his family were murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust.
The comments sparked an uproar in Israel. They may also be the spark that leads the government in Jerusalem — which has not been as outspoken in its criticism of Russia‘s war in Ukraine as many of its Western allies — to turn its full rhetorical and economic weight on the Kremlin.
Russian government-controlled news agencies did not mention such an apology.
Moscow’s diplomatic troubles extend beyond Denmark and Israel. Even Russia‘s most trusted partners seem to be losing patience with the campaign in Ukraine, which has so far failed to notch any major victories and has led to much higher-than-expected casualties in their ranks. The war has also destabilized the global economy, caused energy prices to skyrocket, and led to fears of nuclear war.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Thursday, Mr. Lukashenko stopped short of criticizing the war effort but seemed to suggest that he would like to see it end.
“I want to stress one more time: I feel like this operation has dragged on,” he told AP reporters at the Independence Palace in Minsk.
With pressure growing, observers expect Mr. Putin to order his forces to double down on their Mariupol assault in the hopes of claiming a clear win ahead of Monday’s “Victory Day” celebration, which commemorates the Allied forces defeating Nazi Germany in 1945.
Although the Kremlin has denied it, Western analysts say Mr. Putin could take other significant symbolic steps to mark the May 9 anniversary, from officially annexing breakaway separatist enclaves inside Ukraine to formally declaring war on Kyiv.
But the Western world is taking its own steps to keep Ukraine in the fight and deny Russia such a victory. In Washington, lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they were making progress on a modified version of President Biden’s $33 billion military, economic and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine, which had been bogged down in talks on what other measures, including new COVID-19 relief and money for climate change, might be tacked on to the package.
GOP House and Senate negotiators “are probably knocking some things out and adding some things. But I think by and large, everybody agrees we’ve got to do all we can to help,” Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and a leader of the GOP caucus. While some Republicans say they favor more security aid for Kyiv, “I think [the bill] probably strikes close to the right balance,” he told the AP.
Separately, a high-level donors’ conference in Warsaw on Thursday reportedly raised more than $6 billion for the Ukrainian government, which will help fund its war effort on the eastern front, help keep the beleaguered Ukrainian economy afloat, and finance reconstruction efforts throughout the devastated country.
“The brutality of Russia‘s aggression is shocking the world,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, said at the Warsaw conference.
“It is atrocious. It is a war crime on an every day basis that Russia is committing. And therefore, we stand by your side,” she said. “We cannot match the bravery and the sacrifice of the Ukrainian people, but we can back you; we can help you. We can stand by your side.”
— Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire service reports.