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Civilians freed from Mariupol steel mill as EU moves toward Russian oil ban

Civilians have been evacuated from a steel mill in Mariupol while the West keeps the pressure on Russia: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Kyiv and the European Union is moving toward a potential embargo on Russian oil and natural gas.

(CN) — The war in Ukraine on Monday headed into what may be a decisive week with Russian President Vladimir Putin expected to hold a major rally and speech on May 9, the date Russia celebrates Victory Day to commemorate its win over Nazi Germany. 

Putin will be pushing his army to achieve successes on the battlefield in Ukraine over the next seven days so that he will be able to declare Russia victorious in its invasion of its southern neighbor. 

But the outcome of the war remained far from clear on Monday with Russian troops continuing to make slow advances in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Western military experts are becoming more confident that Russia’s army is getting bogged down and that Ukrainian forces may even be able to mount successful counterattacks. 

Western resolve to defeat Russia remains firm and was highlighted by an unannounced Sunday visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Kyiv, where she thanked Ukrainians for their courage in fighting Russia. She was the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to the Ukrainian capital since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24. Pelosi was joined by other Democratic members of the House, including Jim McGovern, Gregory Meeks, Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee, Bill Keating and Jason Crow.

“We are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom, that we're on a frontier of freedom and that your fight is a fight for everyone. And so our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi said in a video clip during a meeting with Ukraine’s government.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was very grateful for the support provided by the United States.  

“This shows that the United States today is a leader in strong support for Ukraine during the war against the aggression of the Russian Federation,” Zelenskyy said.  

Intense fighting continued in eastern and southern Ukraine on Monday with new reports of deadly strikes by both sides. Russia claimed it shot down a Ukrainian MiG fighter jet and Ukraine said it sank two Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. 

In Mariupol, Russian bombardment of the Azovstal steel mill was put on pause Sunday to allow 126 civilians trapped inside the steelworks to get out. Twenty women and children were freed on Saturday. Hundreds of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers, among them members of the far-right Azov Regiment, remain trapped inside a massive underground bunker beneath the steelworks. 

The United Nations was involved in the negotiations to evacuate the remaining civilians, but there were no further reports on Monday of new evacuations. Reportedly, there are about 500 civilians still there and 600 or more soldiers. Civilians, many of them steel mill workers and their families, reportedly took refuge there at the start of the invasion only to find themselves caught at the center of fighting.    

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Dmytro Kuleba on Monday called the situation over Azovstal “very fragile,” according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency.  

“This evacuation concerns only civilians. We still have Ukrainian defenders, including the wounded, badly wounded Ukrainian soldiers, and their lives should not be left to the discretion of the Russian army, which continues to bomb their positions,” Kuleba said.

Ukrainian soldiers have been holding out inside the Azovstal bunkers for weeks. The rest of Mariupol has been seized by Russian and pro-Russian separatist forces. The port city is being handed over to pro-Russian officials.  

Meanwhile, the West’s pressure on Russia may see a major escalation this week because there are growing signs that the European Union could approve imposing an embargo on Russian oil and natural gas. Such an embargo may be phased in, but if it is agreed upon it would mark a major turning point. The EU relies heavily on Russian energy imports and Russia makes about $850 million each day in energy sales to the EU.  

However, the EU remains divided over such an embargo, with Hungary saying it would oppose it. The EU is considering allowing Hungary an exemption.  

Importantly, many top officials in Germany are now in favor of such a drastic move. The Greens, who are in a coalition government, are pushing hard to block Russian imports.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a co-leader of the Greens, said an embargo could last for years. She wants a gradual, EU-wide embargo on Russian oil imports. The German government believes it could do without Russian crude oil by the end of summer.  

“And we are preparing this in such a way, that we could if necessary keep it up over the coming years,” Baerbock told Germany's ARD television on Sunday. 

Russian oil, though, accounts for only about 12% of what Germans consume and it will be much harder for the EU’s largest economy to find alternatives for Russian natural gas. Germany gets about 35% of its natural gas from Russia.  

Last week, Russia cut off energy exports to Poland and Bulgaria in retaliation for EU sanctions, causing the price of gas to shoot up.  

Abhorrence over the war and anger at Russia is only deepening as more and more stories of torture, rape and atrocities at the hands of Russian troops are documented. Ukraine said about 1,200 bodies of civilians have been found in areas around Kyiv that were formerly under Russian control. 

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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