Russia pledged to observe a cease-fire Thursday in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where its forces have controlled all but a steel plant complex where Ukrainian troops are holed up along with civilians the United Nations is working to evacuate.
Russia said its daytime cease-fire would continue again Friday and Saturday to facilitate more evacuations from the Azovstal site.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an early morning address Thursday, said a long cease-fire was needed to evacuate the remaining civilians in Mariupol.
“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters. In the present conditions, we cannot use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed skepticism about Russia’s commitment to a cease-fire.
“What we have consistently seen, and we’ve seen this even in recent days, is the tendency on the part of the Russian Federation to embrace a so‑called humanitarian pause to cloak itself in the guise of an actor that has humanitarian concerns only to quickly and promptly resume shelling and violence, including against civilians who are trapped in besieged areas, including in Mariupol.”
The United Nations said Wednesday that the more than 300 civilians evacuated from Mariupol, Manhush, Berdiansk, Tokmak and Vasylivka were receiving humanitarian assistance in Zaporizhzhia.
“While this second evacuation of civilians from areas in Mariupol and beyond is significant, much more must be done to make sure all civilians caught up in fighting can leave, in the direction they wish,” said Osnat Lubrani, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko told The Associated Press he did not think Russia’s military action in Ukraine would “drag on this way,” as he accused Ukraine of “provoking Russia” and being uninterested in peace talks. Russian forces used Belarus as a staging point ahead of their February 24 invasion, operating under the pretext of military exercises as President Vladimir Putin denied he would attack Ukraine.
Belarus launched its own military exercises this week, but Lukashenko said they posed no threat.
“We do not threaten anyone, and we are not going to threaten and will not do it,” Lukashenko told the AP. “Moreover, we can’t threaten — we know who opposes us, so to unleash some kind of a conflict, some kind of war here in the West is absolutely not in the interests of the Belarusian state. So, the West can sleep peacefully.”
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that with the drills ongoing, Russia is likely to “inflate the threat posed to Ukraine” by Belarus in order to keep more Ukrainian forces in the northern part of the country and not deploying to eastern Ukraine.
Fighting in the east, south
Fighting intensified Wednesday around the Azovstal steel mill. Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said the Russians were hitting the plant with everything from heavy artillery to “bombs that pierce concrete 3 to 5 meters thick.”
The Ukrainian fighters defending the plant said Russian troops had entered its grounds, which Russia denied.
A senior U.S. defense official said that Russian military progress in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region was “stalled ... very slow and uneven.”
Russia has been launching about 40 to 50 missile strikes a day but is “still wary” of flying inside Ukraine. Russian forces have been meeting stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces as they attempt to advance toward Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, the official said.
Air raid sirens went off Wednesday night across Ukraine, with attacks reported near Kyiv, in Cherkasy and Dnipro in central Ukraine, and in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled new punitive actions against Russia on Wednesday that would cut off European purchases of Russian crude oil within six months and end imports of refined energy products by the end of 2022.
EU members must unanimously approve the package for it to take effect.
“Let’s be clear, it will not be easy because some member states are strongly dependent on Russian oil, but we simply have to do it,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament.
The proposed EU sanctions also include removing Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, from the international SWIFT transaction and messaging system, and listing high-ranking military officers “who committed war crimes in Bucha and those responsible for the inhuman siege of Mariupol.”
She added that Russian President Vladimir Putin “must pay a high price for his brutal aggression.”
“Putin wanted to wipe out Ukraine from the map, and he will clearly not succeed,” she said. “On the contrary. Ukraine has risen in bravery and in unity, and it is his own country, Russia, that Putin is sinking.”
In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden said he would be speaking with other leaders from the Group of Seven advanced economies this week about potential new sanctions against Russia.
“We’re always open to additional sanctions,” Biden told reporters.
Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Press and Reuters.