A Russian ultimatum to Ukrainian troops in Mariupol to surrender or die expired on Wednesday afternoon with no mass capitulation, but the commander of a unit believed to be holding out in the besieged city said his forces could survive just days or hours.
The United Nations said the number of refugees who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 now exceeded five million. More than half are children.
Ukraine said it had so far held off an assault by thousands of Russian troops attempting to advance in what Kyiv calls the Battle of the Donbas, a new campaign to seize two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
In a video, the commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, one of the last units believed to be holding out in Mariupol, asked for international help to escape the port city’s siege.
“This is our appeal to the world. It may be our last. We may have only a few days or hours left,” said Major Serhiy Volyna in a video uploaded to Facebook. “The enemy units are dozens of times larger than ours, they have dominance in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in equipment and in tanks.”
Volyna spoke in front of a white brick wall in what sounded like a crowded room. Reuters could not verify where or when the video was filmed or who else might have been there.
Russia’s nearly eight-week-long invasion has failed to capture any of Ukraine’s largest cities. Moscow was forced to retreat from northern Ukraine after an assault on Kyiv was repelled last month, but has poured troops back in for an assault on the east that began this week.
Mariupol in ruins
In the ruins of Mariupol, site of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, Russia was hitting the last main Ukrainian stronghold, the Azovstal steel plant, with bunker-buster bombs, Kyiv said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said an estimated 1,000 civilians were sheltering at the plant. He said he remained ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for safe passage for the trapped civilians and Ukrainian soldiers.
Dozens of civilians later boarded a small convoy of buses in Mariupol that then departed to Ukraine-controlled territory, two Reuters witnesses said.
Mariupol city authorities said earlier on Wednesday they were hoping to evacuate about 6,000 people under a preliminary agreement with Russia - the first in weeks - on establishing a safe corridor.
Russia has been trying to take full control of Mariupol since the war’s early days. Its capture would be a big strategic prize, linking territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
Once a prosperous port of 400,000 people, Mariupol has been reduced to a blasted wasteland with corpses in the streets and residents confined to cellars. Ukrainian officials say tens of thousands of civilians have died there.
Russian-backed separatists said shortly before a 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) Wednesday deadline that just five people in Mariupol had surrendered. The previous day, Russia said no one had responded to a similar surrender demand.
U.N. data showed that 5.03 million had fled Ukraine as of Wednesday.
“They have left behind their homes and families,” refugee agency UNHCR head Filippo Grandi said on Twitter. “Only an end to the war can pave the way for rebuilding their lives.”
The battle for the Donbas region, which includes the provinces Luhansk and Donetsk, could be decisive as Russia searches for a victory to justify President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Putin says Ukraine mistreated Russian-speakers in the Donbas, an accusation Kyiv dismisses as false.
Russian television showed Putin telling a girl from Luhansk on Wednesday: “It was the tragedy that took place in the Donbas, including in the Lugansk People’s Republic, that forced, simply forced Russia to launch this military operation…”
Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia was focusing on advancing towards the strategically important Donbas city of Sloviansk, but “so far they are not succeeding”. Targeting that area from several directions is part of an apparent effort to surround Ukrainian forces in the east.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted that Russia’s “military capacity has been significantly diminished” since the start of the war. “We’re defeating & will continue to defeat the occupiers!”
Peace talks have been stalled. The Kremlin accused Kyiv on Wednesday of delaying the talks and changing its positions. Kyiv accuses Moscow of blocking talks by refusing humanitarian ceasefires, and Zelenskiy said he knew nothing of a document the Kremlin said it had sent concerning peace talks.
Moscow is hoping its advantage in firepower will give it more success in the east than in the campaign against Kyiv, when its overstretched supply lines were attacked by nimble small units.
President Joe Biden will convene top U.S. military leaders on Wednesday in an annual White House gathering that takes on special significance as the war in Ukraine enters a risky new phase and Washington plans more military aid.
Meanwhile, Russia test-launched its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a new addition to its nuclear arsenal that Putin said had no peer and would give Moscow’s enemies something to think about.
Charles Michel, head of the European Council that groups the 27 EU member states, held talks with Zelenskiy in Kyiv to show Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine.
Michel also visited the nearby town of Borodianka, where Ukraine suspects Russian troops carried out atrocities, something Moscow denies.
“History will not forget the war crimes that have been committed here,” Michel wrote on Twitter. “There can be no peace without justice.”
In the latest sign of Russia’s international isolation, organisers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament banned players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s competition.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “To make sports people hostages of political intrigue is unacceptable.”