Russia launched a fresh attack on Ukraine’s critical port of Odessa on Monday (May 2), as the United States warned that Moscow was formally preparing to annex embattled regions to the east.
The new heavy fighting came as the European Union said it was preparing for a complete halt to Russian gas supplies, with the bloc preparing another package of sanctions sure to anger President Vladimir Putin.
After failing to take the capital Kyiv, Moscow has shifted its two-month-old invasion to largely Russian-speaking areas and increased pressure on Odessa, a famous cultural center that is a major Black Sea port.
The Odessa City Council said a Russian strike had hit an apartment building with five people. A 15-year-old boy was killed and a girl hospitalized, the council said via telegram.
“A 14-year-old boy was killed. A 17-year-old girl was wounded, she has a shrapnel wound,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a video address, giving a different age for the boy.
⚡️Zelensky says a Russian missile hit a dormitory in Odessa.
“In Odessa, a 14-year-old boy was killed, a 17-year-old girl was injured. What is that? For what reason? How did these children and this dormitory threaten Russia?” said Zelenskyy.
Video: State Emergency Service pic.twitter.com/JrkcADlXai
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) May 2, 2022
“For what? What did these children threaten … the Russian state with? And so they fight. That’s all,” he said.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Monday that its drones sank two Russian patrol boats near Snake Island in the Black Sea, which has become a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance after soldiers there rebuffed Russian demands for a surrender.
According to Oleksii Honcharenko, two Russian gunboats were destroyed by Ukrainian TB-2 Bayraktar attack drones near Zmiiny Island (Snake Island) near Odessa. This is the island that gave the immortal slogan with proposing a destination for a Russian warship. pic.twitter.com/A0llIpFcad
— Sergei Sumlenny (@sumlenny) May 2, 2022
“The Bayraktars are working,” said Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the supreme commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, referring to Turkish-made military drones.
Russia’s strategy appears to be to deny Ukraine all access to the Black Sea and link those territories to Transnistria, an area of Moldova it has controlled since 1990 and where it has troops stationed.
Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, wrote that Russia will try to open a new front from Moldova, a country with an army of just 3,250 soldiers. Moldova could easily be taken over by Russia and then Russian troops would threaten the Black Sea port of Odessa from the west, he warned, citing Ukrainian intelligence.
🇷🇺 will try to open a new front against 🇺🇦 #Moldova – Ukrainian military sources.
— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) May 1, 2022
But other experts said that Russia was unable to invade Moldova and that the country would only be at risk if Odessa fell.
Fighting was particularly intense in eastern Ukraine around Izyum, Lyman and Rubizhne as the Russians prepared an attack on Severodonetsk, the farthest city still under Kiev’s control, the Ukrainian general staff said.
In Lyman, relentless shelling has reduced villages around the town to rubble, according to AFP reporters.
“Half the city is destroyed,” said a local resident, lifting luggage onto the roof of his battered Soviet-designed Lada car.
“I don’t have a house anymore,” he said.
The governor of the eastern Lugansk region expected more intense fighting ahead of May 9, the day Russia annually celebrates Nazi Germany’s 1945 surrender to allied forces, including the then Soviet Union.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Italian television that Moscow’s armed forces “will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day”.
Regardless of Russia’s military decisions, the United States warned that Moscow was preparing to annex both Lugansk and neighboring Donetsk in the near future.
Pro-Russian separatists in the two regions declared their independence in 2014, but Moscow has so far failed to formally incorporate them, as it did that year with the Crimean peninsula, which it seized by special forces in unmarked uniforms.
“Russia plans to hold referenda sometime in mid-May after its accession,” said Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
He said Russia is considering a similar plan in a third region, Kherson, where Moscow recently tightened control and enforced the use of its ruble currency.
“We believe the reports are very credible,” Carpenter told reporters in Washington.
As with Crimea, he vowed that the international community would not support Russia-dictated changes to Ukraine’s borders.
“Such sham referendums – fabricated votes – are not considered legitimate, nor are attempts to annex additional Ukrainian territory,” Carpenter said.
“But we must act with a sense of urgency.”
Evacuation of the battered Mariupol
The invasion has killed thousands and displaced more than 13 million people in a war the scale of which has not been seen in Europe for generations.
Among the hardest-hit cities is Mariupol, where scores have died and survivors have little access to food, water and medicine as Russia struggles to connect the southern and eastern strips of land under its control.
Kyiv said over the weekend more than 100 civilians were evacuated from the sprawling Azovstal steelworks, the last base of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, where soldiers and civilians have taken refuge in a maze of underground tunnels.
Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov unit, said another 20 people were transferred Monday night, but only five hours late because “enemy artillery was causing new debris and destruction.”
Ukraine and Russia are coordinating the evacuation of civilians with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Russia to allow humanitarian aid shipments to Mariupol and other besieged cities.
This would “show that there may be genuine humanitarian intent behind this evacuation, and not just another cowardly attempt by the Kremlin to supercharge the narrative,” Price said.
Ukrainian forces have retaken some areas in recent days, including the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees say was occupied for two months.
“It’s been two months of terrible anxiety. Nothing else, a terrible and unrelenting fear,” Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.
But Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a number of villages in the east and has asked the western powers to supply more heavy weapons to bolster its defenses there.
(Edited by Georgi Gotev)