Russia steps up offensive in eastern Ukraine as Polish president visits Kyiv

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POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia continued its offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region on Sunday, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the outcome of the grueling conflict would determine whether his country’s fate lay in his hands. of the West or under the domination of Moscow.

After declaring full control of a sprawling seaside steelworks that was the last point of defense for the port city of Mariupol, the Russian military launched artillery and missile attacks into the industrial heartland of the Ukraine, seeking to expand territory that Moscow-backed separatists have held since 2014.

In a Saturday evening video address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in Donbass as “really difficult” but “the fact that we are able to say this on the 87th day of a full-scale war against Russia is a good thing”. new.”

“Every day that our defenders take away from these offensive Russian plans, disrupting them, is a concrete contribution to the approach of the main day. The desired day that we all look forward to and fight for: the Day of Victory,” Zelenskyy said.

Polish President Andrzej Duda addresses lawmakers during a session of the Ukrainian parliament, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine May 22, 2022. Photo by Reuters Stringer

Zelenskyy’s remarks came as the Polish president prepared to meet him in support of Ukraine’s goal of becoming a candidate for European Union membership, a matter that is expected to be decided at a summit in the EU at the end of June.

As the West rallies behind Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv and on Sunday became the first foreign leader to address Ukraine’s parliament since the start of the war.

Poland, which has hosted millions of Ukrainian refugees since Russia invaded its neighbor, has become a major gateway for Western humanitarian aid and weapons entering Ukraine. The government in Warsaw is also a strong supporter of Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union.

Zelenskyy stressed on Saturday that the EU should consider Ukraine’s desire to join the 27-nation bloc as soon as possible in the context of Russia’s invasion.

“I want to emphasize that our path to European integration is not just a matter of politics,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s a question of quality of life. And about the fact that Ukrainians perceive the values ​​of life in the same way as the vast majority of Europeans.

Russia appears to have made slow progress in Donbass in recent days. It intensified its efforts to capture Sievierodonetsk, the main city under Ukrainian control in the province of Luhansk, which together with the province of Donetsk constitutes the Donbass.

Lujansk Governor Serhii Haidai said the city’s only functioning hospital had only three doctors and enough supplies for 10 days.

On Sunday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the only operational Russian company of BMP-T Terminator tank support vehicles, which are designed to protect main battle tanks, “probably have been deployed to the Sievierodonetsk axis of the ‘Donbass offensive’.

However, with a maximum of 10 vehicles deployed, “they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the campaign”.

In a morning report from the General Staff, Russia also said it was preparing to resume its offensive towards Sloviansk, a city in Donetsk province that is key to Russia’s goal of capturing all Eastern Ukraine and saw fierce fighting last month after troops from Moscow retreated. Kyiv.

Saturday’s Russian shelling killed seven civilians and injured 10 others elsewhere in Donetsk province, the regional governor said.

A monastery in the village of Bohorodichne has been evacuated after being hit by a Russian airstrike, regional police said on Saturday. About 100 monks, nuns and children had sought safe shelter in the basement of the church and no one was injured, police said in a Facebook post.

READ MORE: Russia’s seizure of Mariupol steel plant raises concerns among captured Ukrainian defenders

Zelenskyy stressed on Saturday that Donbass is still part of Ukraine and its forces are fighting to liberate it.

As Russia claims to have taken nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters from the beleaguered Mariupol steelworks prisoner, concerns are growing over their fate and the future of the remaining residents of the city, now in ruins with more than 20 000 inhabitants feared dead.

The Russian Defense Ministry released a video of detained Ukrainian soldiers after announcing that its forces had removed the last resisters from the vast underground tunnels of the Mariupol plant. He said a total of 2,439 had surrendered.

Family members of the fighters, who came from various military and law enforcement units, pleaded for them to be granted rights as prisoners of war and eventually returned to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Saturday that Ukraine “will fight for the return” of each of them.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released a video of its troops taking into custody Serhiy Volynskyy, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Brigade, which was one of the main forces defending the steel plant. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the date, location and conditions of the video.

The Azovstal steel plant was for weeks the last bastion of defense in Mariupol and became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity. Its seizure gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-desired victory in the war he began nearly three months ago.

Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, vowed that the Ukrainian fighters at the factory would be brought to justice. He said the fighters included foreign nationals, although he did not provide details.

A senior member of the Russian parliament, Leonid Slutsky, said Moscow was exploring the possibility of swapping the Azovstal fighters for Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian with close ties to Putin who faces criminal charges in Ukraine, the report reported. Russian news agency Interfax.

Slutsky later backtracked on those remarks, saying he agreed with Pushilin that their fate should be decided by a court.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to capture Azovstal. The Ukrainian army had told the fighters that their mission was over and they could go out. He described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.

READ MORE: Russia suspends natural gas exports to Finland after NATO bid

Mariupol, which is part of Donbass, was blocked at the beginning of the war and became a frightening example for the inhabitants of the rest of the country of the hunger, terror and death they could face if the Russians surrounded their communities.

The mayor of Mariupol warned on Saturday that the city was facing a health and sanitation “catastrophe” due to mass burials in shallow pits across the crumbling city as well as the breakdown of sewage systems.

Mayor Vadim Boychenko said summer rains threatened to contaminate water sources as he pressed Russian forces to allow residents to leave the city. It is estimated that 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided in Mariupol before the war remain.

“In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the (Russian) occupiers and collaborators, the city is on the verge of an epidemic of infectious diseases,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.

With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the shelling of a maternity ward and theater where hundreds of civilians had refugees.

Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.

McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv and other AP staff from around the world contributed.

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