Adam Schreck, The Associated Press
Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at 6:20 a.m. EDT
Last updated Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at 6:21 a.m. EDT
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces tightened the noose around hard-line Ukrainian defenders locked in a steel mill in Mariupol on Wednesday amid desperate new efforts to open an escape corridor for civilians trapped in the crumbling city, a key battleground in Moscow’s road to take over the country’s industrial east.
As the holdouts faced new punitive attacks, the Kremlin said it had submitted a draft of its demands to end the fighting, the number of people fleeing the country exceeded 5 million, and the West rushed in to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons for crushing potential. new phase of the war.
As global tensions run high, the Kremlin announced the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat, which President Vladimir Putin has boasted capable of defeating any defense system missile defense and to make those who threaten Russia “think twice”. It was launched in northern Russia.
On the battlefield, the Ukrainian military said Moscow continued to mount attacks across the east, searching for weak spots in Ukrainian defensive lines. Russia said it launched hundreds of missile and air attacks on targets including concentrations of troops and vehicles.
The Kremlin’s stated goal is the capture of Donbass, the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern region home to coal mines, metallurgical plants and heavy equipment factories vital to Ukraine’s economy. Detaching him would give Putin a much-needed victory two months into the war, after the failed attempt to storm the capital, kyiv.
Analysts say the offensive in the east could turn into a grim war of attrition as Russia comes up against the most experienced and battle-hardened Ukrainian troops, who have been fighting pro-Moscow separatists in Donbass for eight years.
As this potentially crucial offensive is underway, Russia said it presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands as part of talks aimed at ending the conflict – days after Putin said talks were over. in a “dead end”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the ball is in their court, we are waiting for an answer.” He gave no details about the project, and it was unclear when it was sent or if it offered anything new to Ukrainians, who made their own demands last month.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser said Kyiv was considering the proposals.
Moscow has long demanded, among other things, that Ukraine renounce any candidacy for NATO. Ukraine said it would agree to this in exchange for security guarantees from a number of other countries.
In the nearly razed city of Mariupol, Ukrainian troops said on Tuesday the Russian military had dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of the sprawling Azvostal steel plant – seen as the last stand of troops defending Mariupol – and had hit a makeshift hospital where hundreds were staying. Reports cannot be independently confirmed.
Serhiy Taruta, the former Donetsk region governor and Mariupol native, said 300 people, including injured soldiers and civilians with children, were being accommodated in the hospital.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, meanwhile, said there was a preliminary agreement to open a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly to leave Mariupol and head west towards the city. of Zaporizhzhia controlled by Ukraine on Wednesday afternoon.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko has urged residents to leave, although previous such agreements have crumbled with the Russians bombarding evacuation routes or otherwise preventing buses meant to pick up evacuees from entering the city.
Over 100,000 people are believed to have been trapped in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000.
“Do not be afraid and evacuate to Zaporizhzhia, where you can get all the help you need – food, medicine, basic necessities – and the main thing is that you will be safe,” the mayor said in a statement. communicated.
A few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Russians’ estimate, remained entrenched in the steelworks. The Russian side issued a new ultimatum to the defenders to surrender on Wednesday, but the Ukrainians ignored previous demands to leave the factory’s maze of tunnels and bunkers.
Mariupol has strategic and symbolic value for both parties. The magnitude of the suffering inflicted there has made it a global hotbed of war. Falling Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbass .
Eyewitness accounts and reports from officials gave an overview of the extent of the Russian advance. But independent reporting in parts of Donbass held by Russian forces and separatists is very limited, making it difficult to know what is happening in many places on the ground.
Western nations are increasing the flow of military supplies to kyiv for this new phase of the war, which will likely involve trench warfare, long-range artillery attacks, and tank battles over relatively open terrain.
US President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new weapons package in the coming days which will include additional artillery, and Canada and the Netherlands have also said they will send more heavy weapons.
Putin, meanwhile, hailed the launch of the Sarmat as “an important and significant event” for the Russian defense industry and hailed the missile as having “no equivalent in the world”. The Sarmat is intended to eventually replace the Soviet-built missile named Satan by NATO as a major component of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
“This truly unique weapon will enhance the combat potential of our armed forces, reliably ensure Russia’s security against external threats and make those who, in the heat of frantic and aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country,” Putin said.
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv; Yesica Fisch in Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff around the world.