(CN) — Russian forces on Wednesday continued to make slow advances in eastern Ukraine, but Ukraine was fighting back hard with counterattacks near Kharkiv and strikes on a key Black Sea island held by Russia as its encircled troops inside a Mariupol steelworks refuse to surrender.
Wednesday marked the 77th day of war in Ukraine and following a defiant Victory Day speech on Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin it appears certain that Russia has accepted it is involved in a protracted war.
In his speech on Monday in Red Square commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, Putin did not announce an escalation of the war but vowed to continue the fight in Ukraine. Afterward, U.S. military and intelligence officials said it appeared Putin was preparing Russia for a long war.
Russian media, which is largely pro-Kremlin, is projecting this message too.
“He’s not about to retreat. He’s prepared for a long, protracted fight. He doesn’t care how long it takes,” declared the Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid, following Monday’s speech.
For now, the fight is largely over Donbas, the name given for the eastern part of Ukraine that is the focus of Putin’s military aims. He’s called Donbas Russia’s “historical lands” because they were part of the Russian empire. Also, the region is home to many ethnic Russians.
This region was paralyzed by a frozen war for the past eight years after fighting erupted between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in 2014 following the so-called “Maidan Revolution” and the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president.
On Monday, Putin claimed he ordered the invasion of Ukraine to preempt a Ukrainian assault on Donbas. There is evidence that Ukrainian military officials were contemplating a quick strike to reclaim territories held by the separatists and potentially Crimea, a peninsula Russia annexed in 2014.
“Preparations were openly underway for another punitive operation in the Donbas, an invasion of our historical lands, including Crimea, Kyiv also announced the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. The NATO bloc has begun active military development of the territories adjacent to us,” he said.
For days now, intense fighting has continued across the front lines of Donbas and Russian troops have made slow advances.
Russian artillery was reported to be closer to the city of Slaviansk, a small city in the Donetsk region, one of two eastern Ukrainian regions that Putin recognized as independent on the eve of the Feb. 24 invasion.
But Ukrainian forces continue to put up stiff resistance and they have managed to push back Russian forces northeast of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and a key hub in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. Ukraine claimed it downed a Russian helicopter as it pushed Russian forces back across the border.
Ukraine has also hit Russian boats and troops on Snake Island, a strategic island off the coast of Odesa in the Black Sea. Possession of the island could give Russia a lot of advantages, especially if it tries to launch an assault to seize Odesa, Ukraine’s most important port city.
In Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov that lies within the Donetsk region, a thousand or more Ukrainian troops still holding out inside the Azovstal steelworks plant were coming under heavy attacks from tanks, artillery and warplanes. There are reportedly no civilians left inside the bunkers where Ukrainian forces are hunkered down, refusing to surrender. There are reports of hundreds of wounded and dead Ukrainian soldiers inside the steelworks’ bunkers.
Videos showed heavy black smoke billowing from the plant.
The fate of the Ukrainian fighters inside the plant is weighted with heavy symbolism. Many of the fighters are members of the Azov Battalion, a militia group with far-right and neo-Nazi links that was incorporated into the Ukrainian national guard after war broke out in Donbas in 2014.
In Ukraine, many see the Azov fighters as among the country’s foremost fighters and among the bravest defenders of the besieged nation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is reportedly coming under increased criticism in Ukraine for not doing more to save the trapped Azov soldiers.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian media reported that two wives of Azov fighters asked Pope Francis for his help when they met him in the Vatican. The women told reporters that the pope said he would pray for them and do his best to help, according to the Corriere Della Sera, an Italian newspaper.
With no civilians left in the Azovstal bunkers, Ukrainians fear the holdouts will come under ruthless attacks.
“If there is hell on earth, it is there,” said Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of the Kyiv-recognized administration, on social media. “We all are deeply indebted to the defenders of Mariupol.”
In Mariupol and Kherson, another city occupied by Russian forces, new city administrations have been put into place by Russia and rubles have become official currency. Russia is slowly annexing these territories into the Russian Federation.
While the Azov fighters are held up as heroes in Ukraine, they are demonized by Russians. The Azov fighters’ far-right insignia and ideology have fed into Putin’s narrative that Russia is fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy’s government says it is trying to negotiate a deal to get wounded fighters inside the steelworks to safety so they can receive medical help. Ukraine says about half of the 1,000 troops there are seriously wounded.
“We need a new special operation that will help evacuate the wounded soldiers from Azovstal,” Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, told BFMTV, a French television channel. “The mission of the Red Cross and the U.N. is ready to join the process of organizing the evacuation. And I will ask the entire international community to join it.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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