Ukrainian troops have solidified their positions around the nation’s second-largest city of Kharkiv as Russian forces delivered more punishing attacks on an embattled steelworks in a bid to conquer the southern port of Mariupol in time for Victory Day celebrations.
As Monday’s Russian national holiday commemorating the former Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War approaches, cities across Ukraine are preparing for an expected increase in Russian attacks.
Officials urged residents numbed by more than 10 weeks of war to heed air raid warnings.
“These symbolic dates are to the Russian aggressor like red to a bull,” Ukraine’s first deputy interior minister Yevhen Yenin said.
“While the entire civilised world remembers the victims of terrible wars on these days, the Russian Federation wants parades and is preparing to dance over bones in Mariupol.”
The most intense fighting in recent days has befallen eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are entrenched in a fierce race to capture territory not under their control.
Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counter-offensive was advancing around the north-eastern city of Kharkiv while the Russians made minor gains in Luhansk, an area where Moscow-backed separatists have fought since 2014.
Against that backdrop, Ukrainian fighters are making a final stand to prevent a complete takeover of Mariupol.
Securing the strategically important Sea of Azov port that would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.
New satellite photos analysed by The Associated Press showed vast devastation at a sprawling seaside steel mill that is the last corner of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
Buildings at the Azovstal plant, including one under which hundreds of fighters and civilians are likely hiding, had large gaping holes in the roof, according to the images shot by Planet Labs PBC on Friday.
The bombardment of the steel mill intensified in recent days despite a Russian pledge for a temporary ceasefire to allow civilians inside to escape.
Russia has used mortars, artillery, truck-mounted rocket systems, aerial bombardment and shelling from sea to target the facility.
Rescuers sought to evacuate more civilians on Saturday after a week of sporadic convoys to get people out of Mariupol.
Dozens of civilians were delivered on Friday to the care of United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross representatives, Russian and Ukrainian officials confirmed.
The Russian military said the group of 50 included 11 children.
The latest evacuees followed roughly 500 others who were allowed to leave the plant and other parts of the city in recent days.
The Ukrainian government has called on international organisations to also help evacuate the fighters defending the plant. By Russia’s most recent estimate, roughly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained at the Azovstal steelworks. They have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, although he did not mention any by name.
“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still at Azovstal,” he said in his nightly video address.
While they pounded away at the plant, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere nearly two and a half months into a ruinous war that has killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee Ukraine and flattened large swathes of some cities.
Kharkiv, which was the first Soviet capital in Ukraine, remained a key target of Russian shelling, the Ukrainian military said.
The Ukrainian army said it made progress around the hotly contested city with a pre-war population of about 1.4 million, recapturing five villages and part of a sixth.
A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its most recent assessment that Ukraine’s military may be able to push Russian forces “out of artillery range of Kharkiv in the coming days”, providing a respite for the city and an opportunity to build the defenders’ momentum “into a successful, broader counter-offensive”.
Mr Zelensky said the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in all the countries of the free world understanding what is at stake in the ruinous war.
“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that freedom gives to people and states,” the Ukrainian leader said.
“And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully comprehensible for any society, in any corner of the globe.”