Russian forces pounded targets across Ukraine, taking aim at supply lines for foreign weapons in the west and intensifying an offensive in the east, as the European Union moved Wednesday to further punish Moscow for the war with a proposed ban on oil imports.
The Russian military said Wednesday it used sea- and air-launched precision guided missiles to destroy electric power facilities at five railway stations across Ukraine, while artillery and aircraft also struck troop strongholds and fuel and ammunition depots.
The defense minister said a steel mill in Mariupol - the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in that city - was sealed off, a day after Russian troops began storming it.
Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, said attacks in the eastern Donbas region left 21 civilians dead.
The flurry of attacks over the past day comes as Russia prepares to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, marking the Soviet Union’s defeat over Nazi Germany. This year the world is watching for signs of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will use the occasion to declare a limited victory - or expand what he calls a "special military operation" to a wider war.
While the Russian attacks were across a wide swath of the country, some were concentrated in and around Lviv, the western city close to the Polish border that been gateway for NATO-supplied weapons.
Explosions were heard late Tuesday in the city, which has seen only sporadic attacks during the war and has become a haven for civilians fleeing the fighting elsewhere. The mayor said the strikes damaged three power substations, knocking out electricity in parts of the city and disrupting the water supply. Two people were wounded.
The strikes on the train stations were meant to disrupt the delivery of Western weapons, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said, while the minister warned any such deliveries are legitimate targets.
Sergei Shoigu told top military brass Wednesday that the West was "stuffing Ukraine with weapons."
Western weaponry pouring into Ukraine helped to blunt Russia’s initial offensive and seems certain to play a central role in the potentially decisive battle for Ukraine’s Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Moscow shifted its focus to the industrial region after failing to take Kyiv in the early weeks of the war.
The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, which lies in the Donbas, said Russian attacks left 21 dead on Tuesday, the highest number of known fatalities since April 8, when a missile attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk killed at least 59 people.
Russia has deployed a significant number of troops in the region and appears to be trying to advance in the northern Donbas, as they try to cut Ukrainian forces off, according to an assessment from the British Defense Ministry. However, Moscow’s push has been slow as Ukrainian fighters dig in and use long-range weapons to target the Russians.
The US believes Ukrainians in recent days pushed Russian forces about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv, a northeastern city that lies outside the Donbas but is key to the offensive there.
In another effort to consolidate their control in the east, Russian forces began storming the bombed-out steel mill in Mariupol on Tuesday, the city’s last pocket of resistance. The renewed push to take the mill came after scores of civilians were evacuated from the plant's underground tunnels after enduring weeks of shelling.
Shoigu said Wednesday that the fighters at the Azovstal steel mill have been "securely blocked" inside, while Russian forces continue to demand their surrender. The mill's defenders have repeatedly refused to lay down their arms.
In addition to supplying weapons to Ukraine, Europe and the United States have sought to punish Moscow with sanctions. The EU's top official called on the 27-nation bloc on Wednesday to ban Russian oil imports.
"We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion, in a way that allows us and our partners to secure alternative supply routes and minimizes the impact on global markets," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
The proposals need to be unanimously approved to take effect and are likely to be the subject of fierce debate. Hungary and Slovakia have already said they won't take part in any oil sanctions, but von der Leyen didn’t elaborate on whether they would receive an exemption, which appears likely.
Von der Leyen also proposed that Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and two other major banks be disconnected from the SWIFT international banking payment system.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities on Wednesday plan to continue efforts to evacuate civilians from the city of Mariupol and nearby areas if the security situation allows it.
Thanks to the evacuation effort over the weekend, 101 people - including women, the elderly, and 17 children, the youngest 6 months old - emerged from the bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks to "see the daylight after two months," said Osnat Lubrani, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.
One evacuee said she went to sleep at the plant every night afraid she wouldn’t wake up.
"You can’t imagine how scary it is when you sit in the bomb shelter, in a damp and wet basement, and it is bouncing and shaking," 54-year-old Elina Tsybulchenko said upon arriving in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol.
It is unclear how many Ukrainian fighters are still inside, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000 in recent weeks, and 500 were reported to be wounded. A few hundred civilians also remained there, Vereshchuk, the deputy prime minister, said.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that by storming the steel mill, Russian forces violated agreements for safe evacuations. He said the prior evacuations are "not a victory yet, but it’s already a result. I believe there’s still a chance to save other people."
Mariupol - and the plant in particular - has come to symbolize the human misery inflicted by the war. The Russians’ two-month siege of the strategic port has trapped civilians with little or no food, water, medicine or heat, as Moscow’s forces pounded the city into rubble.
The city's fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops for fighting elsewhere in the Donbas.
Also Wednesday, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said a crash in the western Rivne region killed 26 people and injured 12 more. The crash involved a bus, a van and a fuel truck, the report said. The bus was headed to Poland, which has been a key destination for Ukrainian refugees.