KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces have called in airstrikes on a beleaguered steel mill in the southern city of Mariupol in an attempt to dislodge the last Ukrainian troops standing in the strategic port, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday, while the president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he would meet in Kyiv with two senior US officials.
Zelenskyy gave few details about the logistics of his talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on what was the 60th day since Russia invaded Ukraine. But he told reporters he expected results – “not just gifts or some kind of cake, we expect specific things and specific weapons”.
The visit would be the first to kyiv by senior US officials since the invasion began on February 24. During a visit to Poland in March, Blinken briefly visited Ukrainian soil to meet with the country’s foreign minister. Zelenskyy’s last face-to-face with an American leader took place on February 19 in Munich with Vice President Kamala Harris.
The meeting was to take place as Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter, an occasion whose allegorical significance Zelenskyy emphasized during his nightly address to the people of his country after nearly two months of war.
“There will be a resurrection. Life will conquer death. Truth will conquer all lies. And evil will be punished,” he said. “And Russia will have to relearn these truths, it’s only a matter of time.”
Russia has been trying to take Mariupol for almost two months, and the city on the Sea of Azov has seen some of the worst deprivation of the war. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere and establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014.
Some 2,000 troops have fought tenaciously to hold the last remaining Ukrainian outpost in the city, the Azovstal Ironworks, which also houses civilian refugees in its labyrinthine tunnel system.
Russian forces continued to strike the plant, hitting it with airstrikes, including from long-range aircraft, Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman for the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff, said on Sunday.
Mariupol was blocked for most of the war. Ukrainian officials said they expected to find thousands of dead civilians and evidence of war crimes there when the fighting ended. Satellite images have shown what appear to be mass graves dug in towns west and east of Mariupol.
Over the past day, Russia has also intensified its attacks elsewhere in the eastern Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some territory before the war and where the Russians aim to take full control of the industrial heartland of the country. east of Ukraine.
Shtupun said Russian forces have stepped up assault operations against the towns of Popasna and Siverodonetsk in Luhansk, and Kurakhiv in Donetsk. Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said on Sunday that eight people were killed and two others injured in a Russian roadblock on Saturday.
The Russians also shelled the Dnipro region west of Donbass, where at least one person was killed by a Russian missile, according to regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko.
Russia has withdrawn its forces from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the north of the country to fuel the Donbass offensive, but the British Ministry of Defense said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had repelled numerous assaults in the past week.
“Although Russia made some territorial gains, Ukrainian resistance was strong on all axes and inflicted significant costs on Russian forces,” the ministry said in an intelligence update.
“Poor Russian morale and limited time to replenish, re-equip and reorganize forces from previous offensives are likely hampering Russia’s combat effectiveness,” he said.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday it had destroyed a Russian command post in Kherson, a southern city that fell to Russian forces early in the war.
The command post was hit on Friday, killing two generals and seriously wounding another, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said in a statement. The Russian military did not comment on this claim, which could not be confirmed.
If true, at least nine Russian generals have been killed since the invasion began, according to Ukrainian reports.
On Saturday, the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, which has members locked in the Mariupol steelworks, released a video of around two dozen women and children taking refuge there. Its contents could not be independently verified, but if authentic, it would be the first video testimony of what life was like for civilians trapped underground.
The video shows soldiers giving candy to children who respond with punches. A young girl said she and her loved ones had “not seen the sky or the sun” since leaving home on February 27.
The regiment’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, told the AP that the video was shot on Thursday. The Azov Regiment has its roots in the Azov Battalion, which was formed by far-right activists in 2014 at the start of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and drew criticism for some of its tactics.
It is believed that more than 100,000 people – against a pre-war population of around 430,000 – remained in Mariupol with little food, water or heating. Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 20,000 civilians were killed in the city.
Another attempt to evacuate women, children and the elderly from Mariupol failed on Saturday. Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said Russian forces had not allowed buses organized by Ukraine to take residents to Zaporizhzhia, a town 227 kilometers (141 miles) to the northwest.