KYIV, Ukraine (Dispatches) — Russia pressed its offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region Sunday as Poland’s president traveled to Kyiv to support the country’s Western aspirations and became the first foreign leader to address the Ukrainian parliament since the start of the war.
Ukrainian lawmakers stood to applaud Polish President Andrzej Duda whose visit, his second to Ukraine’s capital since April, came as Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in battles scattered along a 551-kilometer (342-mile) wedge of the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
After declaring its full control of a sprawling seaside steel plant that was the last defense holdout in the port city of Mariupol, the Russian military launched artillery and missile attacks in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, seeking to expand the territory Moscow-backed separatists have held since 2014.
In a Saturday night video address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation in the Donbas as “really hard,” but he said his country’s ability to withstand nearly three months of full-scale war against Russia “is good news.”
Zelensky stressed Saturday that the 27-member European Union should consider Ukraine’s desire to join the bloc as soon as possible within the context of Russia’s invasion.
Ukraine’s potential EU candidacy is set to be discussed at a Brussels summit in late June. The government in Warsaw is ramping up efforts to persuade other EU members that are more hesitant about accepting the war-ravaged country as a member.
Poland has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees and become a gateway for weapons going into Ukraine. It is also a transit point into Ukraine for some foreign fighters, including from Belarus, who have volunteered to fight against the Russian forces.
Russia appeared to have made slow moves forward in the Donbas in recent days. It intensified efforts to capture Sievierodonetsk, the main city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which together with Donetsk province makes up the Donbas.
Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai said the only functioning hospital in the city has just three doctors and enough supplies for 10 days.
On Sunday, the British Ministry
of Defense said Russia’s only operational company of BMP-T Terminator tank support vehicles, which are designed to protect main battle tanks, “has likely been deployed to the Sievierodonetsk axis of the Donbas offensive.”
It said, however, with a maximum of 10 of the vehicles deployed, “they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the campaign.”
In a general staff morning report, Russia also said that it was preparing to resume its offensive toward Slovyansk, a city in Donetsk province that is critical to Russia’s objective of capturing all of eastern Ukraine and saw fierce fighting last month after Moscow’s troops backed off from Kyiv.
With Russia claiming to have taken prisoner nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters from the besieged Mariupol steel plant, concerns grew about their fate and the future facing the remaining residents of the city, now in ruins with more than 20,000 residents feared dead.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released video of its troops taking into custody Serhiy Volynskyy, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, which was one of the main forces defending the steel plant.
The Azovstal steel plant for weeks was the last defense holdout in Mariupol and became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity. Its seizure gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a badly wanted victory in the war he began nearly three months ago.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, vowed the Ukrainian fighters from the plant would face tribunals. He said the fighters included some foreign nationals, though he did not provide details.
Russia on Saturday released a list of 963 Americans it said were banned from entering the country, a punctuation of previously announced moves against President Joe Biden and other senior U.S. officials.
The country said it would continue to retaliate against what it called hostile U.S. actions.
The lifetime bans imposed on the Americans, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and CIA head William Burns, are largely symbolic.
They came on the same day Biden signed a support package providing nearly $40 billion in aid for Ukraine.
But the latest action by Russia forms part of a downward spiral in the country’s relations with the West since the Ukraine war, which prompted Washington and allies to impose drastic sanctions on Moscow and step up arms supplies to Ukraine’s military.
Notably, Donald Trump, who as president from 2017 to 2021 sought a close relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is absent from the ban list.
Last month, Russia’s foreign ministry banned Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Ben Wallace and 10 other British government members from entering the country.
The ministry said the decision was made “in view of the unprecedented hostile action by the UK government”.