ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Ukrainian civilians evacuated from the devastated city of Mariupol brought fresh reports of survival and terror on Monday as Western nations worked to implement their increasingly expansive aid promises and billions of dollars in military and oil embargo prepared for economic aid and other once unthinkable moves.
Despite the early morning shelling, the evacuation, supervised by the Red Cross and the United Nations, was seen as the best and possibly last hope for hundreds of civilians trapped for weeks in bunkers under the rubble of the Azovstal Steelworks. and an unknown number scattered among the ruins of the mostly abandoned city.
Those trapped outside the steelworks at Mariupol described a fragile existence subsisting on Russian rations cooked outside on wood fires amid daily shelling that left bodies in ruins.
Yelena Gibert, a psychologist who arrived in Ukraine on Monday with her teenage son, described “hopelessness and despair” in Mariupol and said residents “began to talk about suicide because they are stuck in this situation.”
Heavy fighting in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has brought minimal gains to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces, Western officials say. But the Russians continued to fire rockets and shells at Ukrainian military positions, cities, towns and infrastructure along a 300-mile front, including bombing the Azovstal plant, where the last remaining Ukrainian fighters huddle in Mariupol.
On Monday, Ukraine said it had used Turkish-made drones destroy two Russian patrol ships outside the Black Sea port of Odessa just before Russian missiles hit the city, causing an unknown number of casualties and damage to a religious building.
The US State Department said Russia’s war aims now include the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were partially controlled prior to the February 24 invasion by Russian-backed separatists, and possibly the southern Kherson region as well.
“We think the Kremlin might try to hold sham referendums to try and add a veneer of democratic legitimacy or electoral legitimacy, and that’s straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook,” said Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Safety Cooperation in Europe , told reporters at a State Department briefing in Washington.
As the war drags on and evidence of atrocities mounts, the West’s appetite has grown for retaliation that a few months ago would have been flatly denied. The US Senate is preparing to host President Biden’s $33 billion aid package to Ukraine, including a significant increase in heavy weapons, and the European Union is expected to impose an embargo on Russian oil this week, a significant step for a bloc whose members have done so has long depended on Russian energy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on Monday to strengthen Washington’s partnership with a key NATO ally that has absorbed millions of Ukrainian refugees and helped bring guns to the battlefield bring.
Ms Pelosi called for the “strongest possible military response, the strongest sanctions” to punish Russia for the invasion, despite Moscow’s threats of retaliatory action against the West. “They have already fulfilled their threat that killed children and families, civilians and the rest,” she said.
More than two months into the invasion, Russia is struggling to gain and hold territory, according to a senior Pentagon official, who briefed reporters on the background to discuss intelligence information. The official called Russia’s recent offensive in eastern Ukraine, the region known as Donbass, “very cautious, very lukewarm” and in some cases “anaemic”.
“We are seeing minimal progress at best,” the official said Monday, citing incremental Russian advances in towns and villages. “They will march in, declare victory, and then withdraw their troops only to let the Ukrainians take over.”
British Defense Intelligence said that of the 120 tactical battalion groups Russia deployed during the war – about 65 percent of its total ground combat forces – more than a quarter were likely “disabled”.
Some of Russia’s most elite units, including the airborne troops, have “suffered the highest levels of attrition.” said the British reviewadding that it would “probably take years for Russia to rebuild these forces”.
As fighting raged in eastern and southern Ukraine, Moscow faced a growing diplomatic backlash on Monday after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Jews were “the biggest anti-Semites”.
Mr Lavrov made the comments on Sunday to an Italian TV journalist who had asked him why Russia claimed it was “denazifying” Ukraine, even though its President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was Jewish and members of his family had been killed in the Holocaust.
Mr Lavrov responded that he thought Hitler himself had Jewish roots, a claim dismissed by historians, adding: “For a long time we have heard the wise Jews say that the greatest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry invited the Russian ambassador to Israel to clarify Mr Lavrov’s remarks, while Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid demanded an apology. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said of Mr Lavrov’s remarks: “The aim of such lies is to accuse the Jews of even the most horrible crimes in history that have been committed against them.”
Senator Chuck Schumer, Majority Leader and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the United States, called Lavrov’s comments “disgusting.”
Those who escaped Mariupol and reached the southern city of Zaporizhia had managed to survive in a Russian-held city devastated by intense shelling, where Ukrainian officials say more than 20,000 civilians were killed. About 20 civilians hiding under Azovstal Mill left the city on Saturday, about 100 on Sunday and an unknown number followed on Monday.
Every morning around 6 a.m., Ms Gibert said, residents lined up outside the factory for rations, which were distributed by Russian soldiers. First they had to hear the Russian national anthem and then the anthem of Ukraine’s separatist region known as the Donetsk People’s Republic, she said.
A number was scrawled on each resident’s hand there, and then they sometimes waited all day to receive boxes of groceries, Ms Gibert said. A typical grocery box contained macaroni, rice, oatmeal, canned meat, sweet and condensed milk, sugar, and butter. It was meant to last a month but didn’t always – especially when shared with a teenager, Ms Gibert said.
In a city where many residential buildings have been destroyed and what remains lacks electricity, heat or, most often, running water, Ms. Gibert said she and her son were among the lucky ones.
“Our apartment is still partially intact,” she said. “On the one hand, we all have our windows.”
Anastasiya Dembitskaya, 35, who arrived in Zaporizhzhia with her two children and a dog, said a drop in fighting in Mariupol in recent weeks has allowed erratic phone service to return and small markets to open selling food from Russia and from Russia controlled Ukrainians are sold territory at stratospheric prices.
“They have started at least removing the trash, which is good,” Ms Dembitskaya said. “The bodies and the garbage and the wires that were lying around.”
Ksenia Safonova, who also arrived in Zaporizhia, said that she and her parents had planned to leave Mariupol weeks ago but were pinned down by rocket fire.
“As we tried to leave, intense shelling started,” she said. “Everything exploded. Jets flew overhead and it was too scary to leave.”
When food ran out, she said, her family had to rely on rations handed out by the Russian troops. She pulled out a can of tinned meat, which she said was part of a Russian humanitarian aid package. The expiry date was January 31, nearly a month before the invasion began.
Ms Safonova and her family were finally able to leave Mariupol on April 26 in a minibus with six other people. At checkpoints on the way to Zaporizhia, she said, Russian soldiers insulted her and her family and warned that Ukrainian forces would not welcome them and would fire upon them upon arrival.
At one point, she said, the soldiers tried to get her to reveal her loyalty to Ukraine.
“At one checkpoint, they shouted ‘Glory to Ukraine’ to see if we would shout ‘Glory to Heroes’, although of course we knew it would end badly,” she said, referring to a patriotic greeting among Ukrainians is widespread during the war.
“We still know that the truth is on our side,” she said.
Michael Schwartz reported from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Lara Jake and Eric Schmitt from Washington, Myra Noveck from Jerusalem, Markus Santora from Kraków, Poland, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.