Russia said Friday it intended a full-bore assault to carve out a sizeable slice of Ukraine but Kyiv said the invaders faced ruin, as the UN documented the killing of dozens of civilians in one town.
Ukraine s government, emboldened by a fresh influx of high-grade Western weaponry, said its beleaguered forces were still holding out inside a sprawling, seaside steelworks in the razed city of Mariupol.
The Kremlin has claimed the “liberation” of Mariupol, whose control is pivotal to its war plans nearly two months after President Vladimir Putin ordered the shock invasion of Russia s Western-leaning neighbour.
“Since the start of the second phase of the special operation… one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine,” Major General Rustam Minnekaev said.
“This will provide a land corridor to Crimea,” he added, referring to the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Minnekaev s comments were the clearest articulation yet of Russia s goals in the invasion s “second phase”, which was forced on the Kremlin after Ukraine s Western-backed resistance around the capital Kyiv.
“The enemy s offensive operation in the south hinges on Mariupol. The enemy is trying to focus all its efforts on it,” Ukrainian regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told AFP.
Russia s defence ministry said it was ready for a ceasefire at Mariupol s Azovstal steel plant, to allow out hundreds of trapped civilians — but only if Ukraine s soldiers surrendered.
– Best-laid plans –
In a phone call to Putin, EU chief Charles Michel appealed for humanitarian access to Mariupol during the Orthodox Christian Easter this weekend.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had rejected a proposed truce over the Orthodox Easter holiday, while Putin accused Kyiv of refusing to allow its troops to surrender in Mariupol.
The Azovstal troops have refused to yield, despite saying they are running low on ammunition and basic essentials, and Russia stands accused of serial violations of other humanitarian offers.
Ukrainian officials had hoped to evacuate more civilians out of Mariupol on Friday, but called off the operation because of “insecurity” on the roads.
On Thursday, three school buses carrying evacuees arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia after leaving Mariupol and crossing through Russian-held territory.
“I don t want to hear any more bombing,” said Tatiana Dorash, 34, who arrived with her six-year-old son Maxim.
She said all they wanted now was a quiet night and “a bed to sleep in”.
Andriy Yermak, Zelensky s chief of staff, dismissed the Russian military plan outlined by Minnekaev.
“We have our own scenarios to defend Ukraine and I would point out that plenty of Kremlin plans have already been ruined by the work of our army and our people,” he said on social media.
Russia s change of strategic focus to southern and eastern Ukraine saw invading forces leave behind a trail of indiscriminate destruction and civilian bodies around Kyiv, including in the commuter town of Bucha.
– Mass grave –
A United Nations mission to Bucha documented “the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of some 50 civilians there”, the UN s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
Its spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said Russian forces had “indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes”.
The UN mission was sent on April 9, a week after an AFP team found bodies of people dressed in civilian clothing lining the streets of Bucha, after the town had been under Russian occupation for over a month.
US satellite imagery company Maxar released photos that it said showed a “mass grave” on the northwestern edge of Mangush, west of Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials say the bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been retrieved from areas around Kyiv, and they are working with French investigators to document alleged war crimes.
Forensic experts are now examining the bodies, said Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv regional military administration.
“But what we saw was hands tied behind the back, their legs tied and shot through the limbs and in the back of the head,” he told reporters.
– Referendum for show –
In his latest video address, Zelensky said Russia was “doing everything to have a reason to talk about at least some victories”, in Mariupol and elsewhere.
He accused Moscow of laying the groundwork for a referendum to cement its control of separatist areas in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, urging locals to avoid giving personal data to Russian forces.
“This is aimed to falsify the so-called referendum on your land, if an order comes from Moscow to stage such a show,” he warned.
Separately, Zelensky told leaders of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that Ukraine now needs $7 billion a month to function, accusing Russia of destroying its “economic base for life”.
– Critical window –
Ukraine s leader also welcomed the latest promises of Western military aid, including howitzers, armoured vehicles and tactical drones from the United States.
“We re in a critical window now… where they re going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” US President Joe Biden said, pledging Putin would “never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he had ordered anti-tank missiles and self-propelled howitzers for Ukraine.
The UK government said more than 20 Ukrainian soldiers had travelled to Britain for training in operating some 120 UK-supplied armoured vehicles.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain was joining other European countries in reopening its embassy in Kyiv.
He warned that the conflict could drag on until the end of next year, and that Russia could prevail militarily given its “huge army”.
But, on a visit to India, Johnson said that Putin “will not be able to conquer the spirit of the Ukrainian people”.