Russian and Ukrainian forces duked it out on Wednesday along Ukraine’s eastern front, trading fire as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soldiers tried to penetrate defensive lines in multiple places along the 300-mile stretch.
Moscow announced it had used missiles, artillery, and warplanes to conduct more than 1,000 strikes against military targets, including ammunition warehouses and command centers.
The Kremlin has intensified its assault on the eastern part of the country in hopes of turning the tide following nearly eight weeks of pushback by Ukrainian forces. Russia was unable to topple the capital city of Kyiv and instead has turned its attention to the Donbas region in the east. If successful, it would give Moscow a vital piece of Ukraine and a much-needed victory. Military strategists believe local support, logistics, and terrain in Donbas give Russian forces an edge in the area.
“Virtually the entire combat-ready part of the invaders’ army is concentrated on the territory of our state and in the border areas of Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during an overnight speech.
In Mariupol, the last remaining Ukrainian fighters held on, vowing in video messages from the Azovstal steel plant not to give up.
Maj. Serhiy Volyna of Ukraine’s 36th Separate Marine Brigade posted a video on Facebook of what he said could be the “last appeal” of his life, begging world leaders, including President Joe Biden, to help negotiate a safe passage out of the besieged port city.
Volyna said his men and “hundreds of civilians” are facing their last hours alive underneath the steel mill plant. He added that Russian troops outnumbered his brigade “10 to 1” and that there were 500 people injured inside the shelter. Volyna asked Biden and other world leaders for help with “extraction” to a third country.
Kyiv accused Russia of using powerful bombs to drive the Ukrainians in Mariupol above ground, and on Wednesday, officials said that a makeshift hospital near the factory had been bombed, leaving hundreds more trapped in the rubble.
Mariupol, a strategic port city, has seen near-constant fighting since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24. The destruction and humanitarian crisis that have followed have been on a scale not seen since World War II.
Across Ukraine, more than 5 million people have fled their homes since the start of the war, the Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported.
More than half of the total, over 2.8 million, fled to Poland. While many have stayed there, an unknown number have traveled onward, the agency said.
Hungary has also emerged as a major transit point for Ukrainian refugees. Out of more than 465,000 people who arrived, some 16,400 have applied for protected status, meaning they want to stay.
Ukraine had a prewar population of 44 million. The UNHCR said the conflict has displaced more than 7 million people within the country, along with the 5 million who had left as of Wednesday. According to the agency, another 13 million people are believed to be trapped in the war-affected areas of Ukraine.
“We’ve seen about a quarter of Ukraine’s population, more than 12 million people in total … have been forced to flee their homes, so this is a staggering amount of people,” UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said.
European Council President Charles Michel arrived in Kyiv Wednesday to show support for Ukraine, calling it the “heart of a free and democratic Europe.”
Michel, who is expected to meet with Zelensky later in the day, also visited Borodyanka, a town 30 miles northwest of Kyiv.
“History will not forget the war crimes that have been committed here,” he tweeted.
Zelensky has said that the situation in Borodyanka appeared “significantly more dreadful” than in Bucha, where Russian forces allegedly killed, tortured, and raped men, women, and children indiscriminately.
Corpses were cut up, shoved into sewers, or tossed into shallow mass graves. After they ravaged the city, they set it on fire.
In the United States, Biden is set to host an annual defense policy meeting with top military officials. He will meet in the Cabinet Room with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the deputy secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and combatant commanders.