Ukrainian authorities said their troops have repelled a Russian attack in the east, as Moscow struggled to gain ground in the region that is now the focus of the war.
Battered by their long siege of the vital port city of Mariupol, Russian troops need time to regroup, according to an assessment by Britain’s Ministry of Defence. But they may not get it.
The city and the steelworks where Ukrainian fighters have held off the Russian assault for weeks have become a symbol of Ukraine’s stoic resistance and surprising ability to hinder a much larger force.
An undisclosed number of Ukrainian soldiers remained at the Azovstal steel plant. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said more than 1,900 had surrendered in recent days.
Also remaining at the plant are the bodies of soldiers who defended it while tying down Russian forces. Denis Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment, which had led the defence of the plant, called them “fallen heroes”.
He said: “I hope soon relatives and the whole of Ukraine will be able to bury the fighters with honours.”
He also said that the defenders of Mariupol have received an order to “cease the defence of the city”. The intention is to “save the lives and health of the servicemen of the garrison”, he said.
With the battle for the steel plant winding down, Russia has already started pulling troops back from the site. But the British assessment indicated Russian commanders are under pressure to quickly send them elsewhere in the Donbas.
“That means that Russia will probably redistribute their forces swiftly without adequate preparation, which risks further force attrition,” the MoD said.
The Donbas is now President Vladimir Putin’s focus after his troops failed to take the capital in the early days of the war. Pro-Moscow separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for eight years in the region and held a considerable swathe of it before Russia’s invasion on February 24.
But the effort to take more territory there has been slow-going. In a sign of Russia’s frustration with the war, some senior commanders have been fired in recent weeks, the MoD said.
Russian forces attacked the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, both in the Luhansk region of the Donbas, the region’s governor said on Friday.
Twelve people were killed, and more than 60 houses were destroyed across the region, said Serhiy Haidai in a Telegram post.
But the attack on Severodonetsk was unsuccessful. Both Mr Haidai and Ukraine’s General Staff of the military said Russia took losses and retreated. Their reports could not be independently verified.
Still, Russia’s struggles in the east only seemed to translate into an intensifying offensive that is inflicting increasing suffering.
“It is hell there, and that’s not an exaggeration,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of the campaign.
“The brutal and completely senseless bombardment of Severodonetsk. Twelve dead and dozens wounded there in just one day,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation.
Meanwhile, in the first war crimes trial held by Ukraine, Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a Russian tank unit, told a court in Kyiv on Thursday that he shot Oleksandr Shelipov, a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, in the head on orders from an officer.
Shishimarin apologised to the victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelipova, who described seeing her husband being shot just outside their home in the early days of Russia’s invasion.
She told the court that she believes Shishimarin deserves a life sentence, the maximum possible, but that she would not mind if he were exchanged as part of a swap for the Azovstal defenders.
Ukraine’s surprisingly stiff resistance has been bolstered by western arms and funding – and more help was on the way this week.
The G7 has agreed to provide more money to bolster Ukraine’s public finances, bringing the total aid to 19.8 billion dollars (£15.8 billion), Germany’s finance minister said. The goal is to ensure that Ukraine’s financial situation does not affect its ability to defend itself from Russia’s invasion.
Also, more US aid appeared to be on its way to Ukraine when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a 40 billion dollar package of military and economic aid for the country and its allies. The house of representatives voted for it last week, and US President Joe Biden’s quick signature is certain.
“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said.
In other developments, Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by phone on Thursday with his Russian counterpart for the first time since the war began.
They agreed to keep the lines of communications open, the Pentagon said.
While Mariupol was a target from the start of the invasion and has been under effective Russian control for some time, a group of Ukrainian fighters have held out in the sprawling steel plant – symbolic of the way Ukrainian forces have managed to grind down the Russian troops.
While hundreds of fighters have left, in a brief video message, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment said he and other fighters were still inside.
“An operation is under way, the details of which I will not announce,” said Svyatoslav Palamar.
While Ukraine has expressed hope for a prisoner exchange for those who have surrendered, Russian authorities have threatened to possibly try for war crimes some of the Azovstal fighters.