Russian forces and the remaining Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol continue to fight pitched battles as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed hope a cease-fire would take place to evacuate more civilians from the devastated complex.
After ten weeks of brutal bombardment that have turned the city largely to rubble, Russian fighters have entered the massive steel plant, where about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters and a few hundred civilians have taken shelter in the tunnels and bunkers deep beneath the surface.
Russian forces have stepped up attacks against the plant in recent days, Ukrainian forces said, and may be seeking to sack it by May 9, when Russia celebrates Victory Day, the country’s most patriotic holiday, commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.
“Russian occupiers are focusing on blocking and trying to destroy Ukrainian units in the Azovstal area,” the Ukrainian Army said in a statement on May 5. “With the support of aircraft, Russia resumed the offensive in order to take control of the plant.”
Mariupol’s fall would be a major success for President Vladimir Putin, depriving Ukraine of a vital port, allowing Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and freeing up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective.
The plight of the civilians holed up in the plant with little food or water has garnered international attention and led to calls from leaders around the world for Russia to allow them to be evacuated.
Guterres told the UN Security Council on May 5 that a third operation was under way to evacuate civilians from Azovstal. In joint efforts with the Red Cross, the UN has helped nearly 500 civilians flee the area over the past week.
“I hope that the continued coordination with Moscow and Kyiv will lead to more humanitarian pauses to allow civilians safe passage from the fighting, and aid to reach those in critical need,” Guterres said.
“We must continue to do all we can to get people out of these hellscapes,” he said.
Guterres declined to give details on the new operation “to avoid undermining possible success.”
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said on her social-media page that people would be evacuated from Mariupol on May 6 at noon, but gave no further details.
Russia had earlier said it would open a humanitarian corridor from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Moscow time on May 5, 6, and 7 from the Azovstal plant to evacuate civilians.
Though the Kremlin claimed on May 5 that the corridor was “functioning,” Ukraine had not confirmed that anyone had been freed from the plant that day.
Skepticism still remains about the likelihood of an evacuation as previous Russian announcements of cease-fires have failed.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett raised the humanitarian crisis at Azovstal with Putin during a call on May 5.
Bennett’s office said in a statement following talks between the two leaders that Putin had “promised” to allow the evacuation of citizens through a UN and Red Cross humanitarian corridor.
In a statement released by the Kremlin, Putin told Bennett that Kyiv must order the remaining Ukrainian fighters inside the steel plant to lay down their arms.
With Russian forces bogged down by stubborn Ukrainian resistance along all the eastern front line, a frustrated Kremlin accused the West of preventing a “quick” end to its military invasion by supplying weapons and intelligence to the country.
“The United States, Britain, NATO as a whole hand over intelligence…to Ukraine’s armed forces on a permanent basis,” Peskov told reporters.
“Coupled with the flow of weapons that these countries are sending to Ukraine, these are all actions that do not contribute to the quick completion of the operation,” he said, adding that this was “incapable of hindering the achievement” of the goals of Russia’s military operation.
Russia appears to have already given up on its initial goal — to take the capital and install a Kremlin-friendly regime.
After suffering heavy losses during the first month of the war as it spread its forces out too thin, Russia has since regrouped to focus its efforts on taking eastern Ukraine.
However, Russian forces continue to face tough resistance and suffer losses, raising doubts among many military experts that they will be able to achieve their more modest goals.
Zelensky, meanwhile, launched a global crowdfunding platform — United24 — on May 5 to help Kyiv win the war and rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
“Every donation matters for victory,” he said in English in a video on his Twitter page.
“In one click, you can donate funds to protect our defenders, to save our civilians, and to rebuild Ukraine,” Zelensky said in the video.
WATCH: In the first stage of the operation to evacuate civilians from the Azovstal steelworks, which is under attack by Russian forces in Mariupol, over 150 people were brought out by bus. Those who got out told harrowing stories on May 3 of bodies strewn around the plant.
Later that day Zelenskiy addressed by video a conference in Warsaw dedicated to supporting Ukraine’s war effort and rebuilding.
Referencing the U.S.-led initiative to rebuild Europe following World War II, the Ukrainian leader called on the West to launch an analogous Marshall Plan to help his country recover from the extensive destruction caused by Russia’s military campaign.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the conference raised $6.5 billion for Ukraine.
In discussing ways to financially support Kyiv, EU President Charles Michel said on May 5 that the bloc should confiscate and sell Russian assets it has seized and use the proceeds to rebuild Ukraine, echoing an idea already floated by the United States.
The EU said early last month it had frozen 30 billion euros ($32 billion) in assets linked to blacklisted Russian and Belarusian individuals.
Meanwhile, the United States announced on May 5 that it had seized a $300 million yacht in Fiji belonging to Russian billionaire Suliman Kerimov.
In addition to seizures, the West is continuing to impose sanctions to weaken Russia’s ability to carry out its current military campaign and future aggression.
A day after the European Union announced plans to curb Russian oil imports across the board, the U.K. said on May 5 that it had sanctioned Evraz, a Russian steel producer whose products are critical for the nation’s rail industry.
Russia is using its rail network to ship weapons and troops to its border with Ukraine.
Marking “another small victory,” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced on May 4 that 344 women, children, and elderly people were evacuated safely from Mariupol.
But her announcement was clouded by a report by the Associated Press that put the death toll of an earlier Russian air strike on a Mariupol theater converted into a shelter at approximately 600 people, doubling previous estimates by Ukrainian officials.
In neighboring Belarus, the armed forces began “surprise” large-scale drills on May 4 to test their combat readiness, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said.
The British Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 5 that Russia will likely attempt to “inflate the threat” posed by the Belarusian military’s exercises with the aim of fixing Ukrainian forces in the Belarusian border area to prevent them from being deployed to the front line in eastern Ukraine.
Minsk has aided Russia’s invasion by allowing Belarusian territory to be used to stage the attack.
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed in an interview with AP on May 5 that he had information showing Ukraine had planned to attack Belarus, without producing any evidence.
Lukashenka has been shunned by the international community since he claimed victory in a presidential election in August 2020 that the opposition says was rigged, and unleashed a wave of violence to stifle mass protests afterward.
In Moldova’s Moscow-backed separatist region of Transdniester, a television channel reported that shots have been fired near one if its border crossings with Ukraine.
The report on May 5, which comes after several similar alleged incidents in the Moscow-backed Transdniester region since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, could not be independently verified.
Kyiv has warned that Russia wants to destabilize the region to create a pretext for a military intervention in Moldova, which also borders NATO member Romania.