German, Ukrainian Presidents Smooth Out Dispute Over Visit

The European Union on May 4 unveiled a proposal to ban Russian oil imports by the end of the year as Russian forces intensified their assault in on a steel plant in the southeastern port city of Mariupol that Ukrainian forces continue to defend.

There was heavy fighting as Russian forces broke into the territory of the plant, Azov Regiment Commander Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko said on Telegram. The situation at the plant is extremely difficult, but the Ukrainian military continues to defend itself, he said in the post.

“I am proud of the soldiers who are making superhuman efforts to deter the enemy,” Prokopenko said. “I thank the world for the colossal support of the Mariupol garrison.”

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said earlier there was “heavy fighting” involving artillery, tanks, and war planes at the Azovstal plant and said city officials had lost contact with Ukrainian forces inside.

David Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation that has held now-stalled peace talks with Russia, later told RFE/RL that Ukrainian authorities have contact with the defenders at the plant.

“Attempts to storm the plant continue for the second day. Russian troops are already on the territory of Azovstal,” Arakhamia said, citing Prokopenko.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied reports that Russian troops had stormed the plant.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to help save the lives of the remaining Ukrainians trapped in the sprawling industrial complex.

“The lives of the people who remain there are in danger. Everyone is important to us. We ask for your help in saving them,” Zelensky told UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a phone call on May 4.

He called on the UN to “assist in the removal of all the wounded from Azovstal,” a statement from his office said.

Moscow pledged to halt some military operations this week to allow more evacuations from May 5-7. It has, however, reneged on previous pledges to allow for humanitarian corridors.

The new EU sanctions proposed on May 4 would add more banking sanctions against Moscow and cut off some Russian broadcasters in Europe.

But the EU said at the heart of the package is a phaseout of the import of Russian crude and refined oil products by the end of the year. It was formally proposed despite pushback from EU members that are heavily dependent on Russian energy imports. Shortly after the announcement Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria said they would seek exemptions from the embargo.

“We will phase out Russian supply of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of the year,” the head of the bloc’s executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

“This will be a complete import ban on all Russian oil, seaborne and pipeline, crude and refined,” she said, adding, “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin must pay a high price for his brutal aggression.”

Von der Leyen, however, conceded that getting unanimity on oil sanctions “will not be easy.” The measures require approval from all 27 EU countries to take effect.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said EU countries blocking an oil embargo would be “complicit” in Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.

“Whatever their arguments are, if they oppose (the) oil embargo, it means one thing: they play on the Russian side. They share responsibility for everything Russia does in Ukraine, full stop,” Kuleba said in a video posted on Twitter.

The European Union accounts for nearly a half of Russia’s crude and refined oil products. But the Kremlin, in a first reaction to the EU announcement, put on a brave face, warning that the embargo is a “double-edged sword” and that the EU consumers will pay the price.

“The cost of these sanctions to the citizens of Europe will grow by the day,” Peskov said on May 4.

Peskov said the Kremlin is looking at “various options” for its response to the new sanctions.

Von der Leyen also proposed that Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and two other major banks be disconnected from the SWIFT international banking payment system.

The EU will also ban three Russian state-owned broadcasters, she said, without naming the channels directly.

According to a document seen by RFE/RL, the package also contains a list of 58 individuals sanctioned over Russia’s military action in Ukraine that includes the Patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church, a close ally of Putin’s.

Beyond the fighting in Mariupol, Moscow deployed 22 battalions near Izyum, an eastern city, in a bid to push into the Donbas region, the British Defense Ministry said in its daily bulletin on May 4, adding that Russia’s apparent goal is capturing the cities of Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk in the east, “despite struggling to break through Ukrainian defenses.”

A Russian battalion usually consists of 700-800 soldiers.

According to the British intelligence bulletin, capturing the two cities “would consolidate Russian military control” of northeastern Ukraine.

In neighboring Belarus, the armed forces began “surprise” large-scale drills on May 4 to test their combat readiness, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Rikard Jozwiak, Reuters, AP, and AFP

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