Heavy street fighting hampered attempts to free hundreds of survivors trapped inside a bombed-out theater on Saturday, as Ukrainian forces held out against a larger Russian force inside the strategically important southern port city of Mariupol.
On a day of meager battlefield gains for Vladimir Putin, Ukraine She admitted that in the aftermath of heavy fighting in Mariupol she lost access to the Sea of Azov for the first time, a potentially important prize for Russia.
Street fighting raged on Saturday in the port, much of it flattened after weeks of bombardment by Russian forces. The most prominent target remains the main municipal theater in Mariupol, which was bombed on Wednesday despite being used as a shelter for women and children.
Hundreds are still missing, and more than 1,000 survivors are believed to be trapped in the building.
The United Nations World Food Program has become the latest humanitarian agency to express its frustration at being denied access to tens of thousands of people trapped in the city, which is now completely besieged by Russian forces.
Jacob Kern, emergency coordinator for the World Food Programme, described Russia’s tactic in preventing emergency food supplies from reaching Mariupol as “unacceptable in the 21st century”. Ukrainian MP Dmytro Gorin described the situation in the city as “medieval”.
The action of the Ukrainian rear guard in Mariupol is, according to experts, a growing symbol of the broader conflict, as the Russian offensive appears to be stalled in most of the country. A British defense assessment described the Kremlin as being “surprised by the scale and ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance”.
Updates across Ukraine indicated little change in front-line positions, with hot spots in the southern cities of Kherson and Mykolaiv – where dozens of bodies are still being recovered from the rubble after a missile attack on a Ukrainian barracks – as well as Mariupol.
Capturing the port would give the Russians the full northern coast of the Sea of Azov, cutting off Ukraine from a channel to the Black Sea, while allowing the Kremlin to build a land corridor to Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014.
In the capital, Kyiv, Russian plans to encircle the capital remain seemingly elusive. The latest Ukrainian defense assessments indicated that 35 markets and 635 stores remained open, as the city looks to withstand a potential siege.
However, some Russian elements managed to break through its defenses. Ukrainian forces in Kyiv announced that they have so far arrested 127 “saboteurs”, including 14 infiltration groups, since the start of the Russian invasion.
One worrying development was Russia’s use of advanced hypersonic missiles – capable of evading air defenses – to strike an underground weapons storage unit in western Ukraine. Defense experts warned that this was a “way to escalate” the conflict further because the Ukrainian army would not be able to defend itself against attacks like such missiles, and the use of these weapons had preceded new attempts to resolve the fighting. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for “meaningful and fair” talks with Moscow.
In an attempt to use Putin’s slow military progress as a reason for the talks, Zelensky warned that it would take “several generations” for Russia to recover from its losses in the war.
But Putin accused Ukraine of procrastinating by making unrealistic proposals, in a phone call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Elsewhere, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the United States of dissuading Kyiv from agreeing to Russia’s demands, though he provided no evidence to support this claim.
Most Western analysts believe that the Russian forces have already incurred significant losses. Western officials claim they have evidence of dwindling morale among the Russian fighters, as well as serious logistical problems.
Ukrainian forces claim to have killed the fifth Russian general, Lieutenant General Andrei Mordvishev. If true, he would be the largest Russian commander killed in the conflict to date.