© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A worker checks the valve of an oil pipe at the Lukoil company owned Imilorskoye oil field outside the West Siberian city of Kogalym, Russia, January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo
By Joseph Campbell and Alessandra Prentice
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – The European Union is expected to outline oil sanctions against Moscow on Wednesday as Russian forces pounded targets in eastern Ukraine, unleashing rockets on a steel plant that is the last redoubt for resistance in the port city of Mariupol.
Scores of evacuees who managed to leave the city under United Nations and Red Cross auspices reached the relative safety of Ukraine-controlled Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday after cowering for weeks in bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.
Weary-looking evacuees, including children and the elderly, clambered off buses after escaping the ruins of their home town in southeastern Ukraine where Russia now claims control.
“We had said goodbye to life. We didn’t think anyone knew we was there,” said Valentina Sytnykova, 70, who said she sheltered in the plant for two months with her son and 10-year-old granddaughter.
Russia is targeting Mariupol as it seeks to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and connect Russian-controlled territory in the south and east. Parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were held by Russian-backed separatists before President Vladimir Putin launched the Feb. 24 invasion.
More than 200 civilians remain in the plant, according to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko, with 100,000 civilians still in the city.
“You go somewhere and you are chased out … Where am I to go? Let them blow me up here,” a 67-year-old woman told Reuters in the city, as she boiled water on an open fire amid the rubble of a destroyed apartment block.
Pummelled by Western sanctions, Russia now faces new measures from the EU that would target its banks and oil industry – a major step for European countries that rely heavily on Russian energy.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to spell out the proposed new sanctions on Wednesday, including a ban on imports of Russian oil by the end of this year.
Moscow showed no signs of backing down nearly 10 weeks into what it calls a “special military operation,” a war that has killed thousands, destroyed cities and driven 5 million Ukrainians to flee abroad. Russia’s own $1.8 trillion economy is heading for its biggest contraction since the years following the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
Putin raised the economic stakes for Kyiv’s Western backers by announcing plans to block exports of vital raw materials.
Russian forces have turned their heaviest firepower on Ukraine’s east and south after failing to take Kyiv, the capital, in the opening weeks of the war.
There were also fresh attacks in the west on Tuesday. The mayor of Lviv said Russian misile strikes had damaged electricity and water networks in the western city near the Polish border, across which flows Western arms supplies for Ukraine’s military.
Russian forces also struck six railway stations in the centre and west of the country, the head of Ukraine’s railways, Olesksandr Kamyshin, said. There were no injuries to civilians, he added on Twitter (NYSE:).
In the east, Russian attacks in Donetsk on Tuesday killed 21 civilians and injured 27, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. He said the figure was the highest daily death toll in the region since last month.
Attacks and shelling also intensified in Luhansk, with the most difficult area being Popasna, where it was impossible to organise evacuations, regional Governor Serhiy Haida said.
“There are no safe cities in Luhansk region,” he said on Telegram.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia’s military “reacted today with great anger to our successes”.
“The sheer scale of today’s shelling clearly does not indicate that Russia has any special sort of specific military aim,” he said in an evening address to the nation.
Russia said it had struck a military airfield near the Black Sea port of Odesa with missiles, destroying drones, weapons and ammunition supplied by the West. Ukraine said three missiles targeted the Odesa region and all were intercepted.
‘WE NEED A BREATHER’
Mariupol, a city of 400,000 before the invasion, has seen the bloodiest fighting, enduring weeks of siege and shelling.
A ceasefire broke down with some civilians still trapped in the bunkers beneath the steel works despite a U.N.-brokered evacuation.
In a Telegram video from the steel plant, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment said Russia had pounded Azovstal with artillery and air strikes on Monday night. Reuters could not independently verify his account.
Zelenskiy accused Russia of breaching agreements to pause fighting to allow civilians to escape.
“They’re still fighting. They’re still bombarding and shooting,” Zelenskiy said via video link at a Wall Street Journal event. “We need a breather.”
U.S. President Joe Biden used a visit to a Lockheed Martin (NYSE:) defence plant to press the U.S. Congress to approve his proposed $33 billion assistance package for Ukraine, which includes more than $20 billion in military aid.
“If you don’t stand up to dictators, history has shown us, they keep coming, they keep coming,” Biden told workers at the plant in Alabama.
Britain announced an additional 300 million pounds ($375 million) in aid.