(CN) — The war in Ukraine raged on Wednesday as fighting carried on across the country’s eastern and southern plains following a nighttime barrage of Russian missiles that struck rail lines and other targets in several Ukrainian regions.
The West’s economic blockade on Russia, meanwhile, moved toward a pivotal moment on Wednesday with the European Union saying it was ready to cut off Russian oil imports by the end of the year. The sanctions still need to be approved by the EU’s member states, but exemptions are being crafted for Hungary and Slovakia, two countries deeply dependent on Russian oil and skeptical about cutting off Russia.
There remained divisions, however, on blocking Russian natural gas due to fears among some in Europe over inflaming the war and causing deep economic pain at home. Russia provides the EU with about a quarter of its oil and nearly 40% of its gas.
“This will be a complete import ban on all Russian oil, seaborne and pipeline, crude and refined,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “It will not be easy. Some member states are strongly dependent on Russian oil. But we simply have to work on it.”
She added, “Putin must pay a price, a high price, for his brutal aggression.”
War reports from the front lines in and around Donbas, the eastern part of Ukraine, describe heavy fighting but no major advances or retreats by either side. Troops and weapons are flowing toward the battle over Donbas and the fighting is intense. About 60,000 Ukrainian troops, among the most battle-hardened, are at risk of being encircled there, but they are fighting back hard and even counterattacking in places.
In Mariupol, more civilians on Tuesday were freed from the bunkers of the besieged Azovstal steelworks plant where hundreds of Ukrainian troops are holding out.
But by late Tuesday, there were new reports that Russian forces were bombing the facility’s underground bunker and attempting to storm it after Ukrainian forces allegedly used the pause in fighting during the civilian evacuation to take up firing positions.
About two weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there was no point in storming the steel mill’s bunkers and instead ordered a blockade “so that a fly can’t get through.” Russian sources claim that alongside soldiers with the far-right Azov Regiment there are many Western fighters holed up inside Azovstal.
The assault on the steel mill intensified during Wednesday and late in the day Ukrainian officials said they had lost contact with troops inside the plant.
“Today there are heavy battles on the territory of our fortress, on the territory of Azovstal. Our brave guys are defending this fortress, but it is very difficult, because heavy artillery and tanks are firing all over the fortress; aviation is working, ships have approached and are also firing on the fortress,” Vadym Boichenko, the mayor of Mariupol before the Russian takeover of the city, said on television.
“Unfortunately, today there is no connection with the guys, there is no connection to understand what is happening, whether they are safe or not,” he said. “Yesterday there was a connection with them; today, no more.”
The fate of some 200 civilians – including some 30 children – still trapped in the mill’s bunkers remained uncertain. The United Nations and Red Cross are negotiating for their release. In recent days, about 200 or more civilians, many of them women and children, were evacuated and they have told harrowing accounts of spending two months under bombardment inside the dark bunkers, surviving on rations provided by Ukrainian soldiers and discovering their city was in ruins as they were bussed out.
In Kyiv, the war tone is growing more defiant and confident with top officials vowing that the war will lead to Russia’s surrender.
“With Russia, we can only sign their capitulation. And the sooner they do it, the more profitable it will be for their country,” said Aleksey Danilov, a head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, according to Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet.
Danilov vowed that Ukraine will not sign a peace treaty with Russia but that the Kremlin will be forced to surrender.
Serhiy Gaidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region of Donbas, claimed the tide of the war will shift in Kyiv’s favor by the middle of May as billions of dollars in Western weapons arrive at the front, Strana reported. Ukraine is especially emboldened by a $33 billion military aid package requested by U.S. President Joe Biden six days ago.
Late Tuesday, Russian warplanes reportedly fired 18 cruise missiles into Ukraine with eight of them getting shot down, according to Ukraine’s air force. The missiles reportedly struck rail lines and rail stations in several Ukrainian regions and knocked out power in parts of Lviv, a key western Ukrainian city. Videos showed a large explosion and fire in Lviv.
On the front lines, fighting was raging on the outskirts of the eastern small cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, according to Strana. Battles were also reported near Izyium and Liman, two other small cities slightly to the west.
The war continues to take a heavy toll on civilians. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said 10 people were killed and 20 wounded after a Russian rocket hit a bus depot in Avdiivka, a city in Donbas. The victims were factory workers waiting for buses at the end of a shift, she said.
“The Russians knew exactly where they were aiming. The workers had just finished their shift and were waiting at a bus stop for a bus to take them home from the factory,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region
Fighting was also raging around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city after Kyiv. Kharkiv is in Ukraine’s northeast and lies near the Russian border; the city has been at the center of the war since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24 and it has suffered terribly. Ukrainian forces were reportedly on the offensive in positions outside Kharkiv.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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