Intense street fighting hampered attempts to free hundreds of survivors trapped inside a bombed theater on Saturdayas Ukrainian forces held out against a larger Russian force inside the strategically important southern port city of Mariupol.
In a day of scant battlefield gains for Vladimir Putin, Ukraine did admit that following fierce fighting in Mariupol it had lost access to the Sea of Azov for the first time, a potentially significant prize for Russia.
Street fighting raged on Saturday in the port, much of it flattened after weeks of bombardment by Russian forces. The most notable target remains Mariupol’s main municipal theatre, bombed on Wednesday despite doubling as a shelter for women and children.
Hundreds were still unaccounted for with more than 1,000 survivors believed to be trapped in the building.
The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) became the latest humanitarian agency to voice frustration that it was being prevented from reaching tens of thousands of people trapped in the city, now completely encircled by Russian forces.
Jakob Kern, the WFP’s emergency coordinator, described Russia’s tactic of preventing emergency food supplies to Mariupol as “unacceptable in the 21st century”. Ukrainian MP Dmytro Gurin described conditions in the city as “medieval”.
Ukraine’s rearguard action in Mariupol is, according to experts, increasingly symbolic of the wider conflict, with the Russian offensive seemingly stalled across much of the country. A UK defense assessment described the Kremlin as being “surprised by the scale and ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance”.
Updates throughout Ukraine indicated little change in frontline positions, with hotspots in the southern cities of Kherson and Mykolaiv – where scores of bodies were still being pulled from the rubble after a missile strike on a Ukrainian barracks – as well as Mariupol.
Capturing the port would grant the Russians the entire northern coast of the Sea of Azov, cutting Ukraine off from a conduit to the Black Sea, while allowing the Kremlin to build a land corridor to Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014.
In the capital Kyiv, Russian plans to surround the capital were still seemingly far from being realized. Latest Ukrainian defense assessments indicated that 35 markets and 635 shops remained open, with the city looking to withstand a possible siege.
However, some Russian elements have managed to breach their defenses. Ukrainian forces in Kyiv announced they had so far detained 127 “saboteurs”, including 14 infiltration groups, since the Russian invasion began.
One alarming development was Russia’s use of sophisticated hypersonic missiles – capable of avoiding air defenses – to strike an underground weapons storage unit in western Ukraine. Defense experts warned this had “the means to escalate” the conflict further as the Ukrainian army would be unable to defend itself against attacks by such missiles. The use of these weapons preceded new attempts to resolve the fighting. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for “meaningful and fair” talks with Moscow.
Appearing to try to use Putin’s sluggish military progress as a reason for talks, Zelenskiy warned it would take Russia “several generations” to recover from its losses in the war.
But Putin accused Ukraine of stalling by submitting unrealistic proposals, in a call with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Elsewhere, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the US of dissuading Kyiv from agreeing to Russia’s demands, although he did not provide any evidence to support the claim.
Most western analysts believe the Russian forces have already suffered significant losses. Western officials claim to have evidence of dwindling morale among Russian fighters, as well as of severe logistical issues.
Ukrainian forces claim that they have killed a fifth Russian general, Lieutenant General Andrei Mordvichev. If this is true, he would be the most senior Russian commander killed in the conflict so far.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism