A senior US official warned that Russia plans to annex large portions of eastern Ukraine later this month, and the Mariupol steel mill that has become the city’s last stronghold of resistance came under renewed assault a day after the first evacuation of civilians from the plant. Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Monday that the US believes the Kremlin also plans to recognise the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic. Neither move would be recognised by the United States or its allies, he said. Carpenter cited information that Russia is planning to hold sham referendums in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics that would try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy and attach the entities to Russia. He also said there were signs that Russia would engineer an independence vote in Kherson.
He noted that mayors and local legislators there have been abducted, that internet and cellphone service has been severed and that a Russian school curriculum is soon to be imposed. Ukraine’s government has said Russia also has introduced the ruble as currency there. In bombed-out Mariupol, more than 100 people including elderly women and mothers with small children left the rubble-strewn Azovstal steelworks on Sunday and set out in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, according to authorities and video released by the two sides. Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress. Authorities gave no explanation for the delay.
At least some of the civilians were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The Russian military said some chose to stay in separatist areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory. In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow’s troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas. The Kremlin has denied it. The Russian bombardment of the sprawling plant by air, tank and ship picked up again after the partial evacuation, Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, which is helping to defend the mill, said on the Telegram messaging app. Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway among Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on evacuating more people.
The steel-plant evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human cost of the almost 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other places have broken down, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-on evacuation routes. Before the weekend evacuation, overseen by the United Nations and the Red Cross, about 1,000 civilians were believed to be in the plant along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders. Russia has demanded that the fighters surrender; they have refused.