Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Ukrainians Flee Mariupol as Russian Forces Push to Take Port City

Another day of war. Thursday will mark exactly one month since Putin's invasion.

At WSJ, "Russian airstrikes, artillery and mortar rounds have gutted entire neighborhoods in the strategically important Ukrainian city":

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—The battle for the southern port city of Mariupol intensified Tuesday with fleeing civilians describing Russian and Ukrainian forces locked in street-by-street warfare through the city’s downtown as Moscow’s airstrikes gutted entire neighborhoods.

Nearly a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, it is on the verge of taking Mariupol in what would be the first major city to fall under its control. But Mariupol is a shattered prize.

“Everything fell apart,” Natalia Poluiko said Tuesday, hours after arriving in Zaporizhzhia, about 150 miles to the west, with her 8-year-old daughter and five other relatives. “We had a choice to wait there until a bomb fell on our building, or risk trying to get out.”

The family fled Mariupol in two vehicles with belongings strapped to the roof and a religious icon on the dashboard, praying for safe passage on the approach to each Russian checkpoint.

Hundreds of people from Mariupol now arrive daily in Zaporizhzhia in a grim procession of cars, with shattered windshields and shrapnel damage speaking to the ordeal endured by their passengers.

The wider battle lines across Ukraine have shifted little in recent days. Ukrainian forces said they were regaining ground in some areas. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday its troops had made progress battling for towns along its lines of attack.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, maintained his busy schedule of trying to rally international support on Tuesday, speaking with the pope and, separately, the Italian parliament.

President Biden heads to Europe on Wednesday for talks with allies about the war and is preparing to roll out new sanctions on most members of Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, U.S. officials said.

The fighting around Mariupol has been under way since the opening days of Russia’s assault that began Feb. 24. The city has seen stepped-up levels of attack for about the past two weeks and as the battle moved closer to the city.

Mariupol has been a focus of the Russian offensive because it is a strategically important city linking Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine with a swath of territory Moscow has captured in the south, and creating an arc containing much of the country’s Russian-speaking population.

Streams of cars from Mariupol pull into the parking lot of a hardware store on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia—now a way station for people fleeing to safety further west, or abroad—part of the more than 10 million people uprooted by the fighting. Taped to the windows are homemade signs reading “children” in Russian, and strips of white material tied to the door handles, scant protection from the war raging over their city.

More than a dozen residents who fled since last week described a desperate struggle to stay alive in a city where venturing outside meant exposure to being shot, shredded by artillery fire or obliterated in an airstrike.

“They are basically wiping the city from the face of the earth,” said Andriy, 37, who took his chances during a lull in the bombardment on Monday and fled Mariupol with his wife and two children. Andriy, who declined to give his full name, said his ears had yet to adjust to the absence of constant shelling in the city he left behind. “It’s as though I’ve come back to life.”

Although Mariupol was always likely to be a target of Russia’s invasion, many residents stayed because they couldn’t believe the situation would get so bad. By the time they realized what was unfolding, it was too late.

The bombardment of the city of between 350,000 to 400,000 residents was growing heavier and closer by the day. Local officials say Russia has rained 50 to 100 bombs a day on Mariupol, destroying between 80% and 90% of the city. Ukraine rejected a Russian ultimatum to surrender the city this week.

Ukrainian military officials said Tuesday that those defending the town were able to destroy a Russian patrol boat operating close to the city, as well as a Russian radio complex...