Attacks on Mariupol steelworks intensify as Russia looks to end standoff; fate of Ukraine’s Donbas in the balance

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Russia could use Belarusian military drills to divert Ukrainian forces, UK says

Russia is likely to use snap military drills by its ally Belarus as a way to divert Ukrainian forces away from Donbas in eastern Ukraine, the focus of Russian assaults, as it seeks to seize the entire region, according to the British Ministry of Defence.

“Russia will likely seek to inflate the threat posed to Ukraine by these exercises in order to fix Ukrainian forces in the North, preventing them from being committed to the battle for the Donbas,” the ministry said in its latest intelligence update on Twitter this morning.

Belarus announced it was beginning combat-readiness drills yesterday, saying the purpose of the exercises was “to assess the readiness and ability of personnel to quickly respond to possible crises.” The move raised speculation that Belarus might join Russia’s war effort in a potential renewed assault on northern Ukraine. Belarus insisted there was no threat to its European neighbors.

The U.K.’s Defence Ministry said Thursday that Belarusian land forces “have been observed deploying from garrison to the field, for exercises” and that this is in line with seasonal norms as Belarus enters the culmination of its winter training cycle in the month of May. 

“Deviation from normal exercise activity that could pose a threat to allies and partners is not currently anticipated,” the ministry added.

Holly Ellyatt

Russian forces renew attacks to seize Ukraine’s last stronghold in Mariupol

A destroyed administration building at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works.

Chingis Kondarov | Reuters

Russian forces have reportedly renewed their assault on the Azovstal steelworks complex, a last stronghold for Ukrainian fighters in the southern port city of Mariupol, in what is widely seen as a bid to bring the standoff to an end.

In the latest update from the Ukrainian military, its spokesman said Russian forces “are focusing their efforts on blocking and trying to destroy Ukrainians units in the Azovstal” steelworks.

“With the support of aircraft, the enemy resumed the offensive in order to take control of the plant,” Ukraine said in its update Thursday morning.

CNBC was unable to immediately verify the information.

Hundreds of civilians, including the elderly and children, have been sheltering in the network of underground tunnels and bunkers underneath the steelworks. After a number of failed attempts to evacuate civilians, several hundred have been evacuated to the relative safety of the Ukrainian-controlled Zaporhizhia in recent days.

— Holly Ellyatt

Russia is striking civilian targets to ‘weaken Ukrainian resolve,’ British government says

Moscow is trying to “weaken Ukrainian resolve” by striking civilian targets in Ukraine, the British government said on Wednesday night.

“As Russian operations have faltered, non-military targets including schools, hospitals, residential properties and transport hubs have continued to be hit, indicating Russia’s willingness to target civilian infrastructure in an attempt to weaken Ukrainian resolve,” the U.K. Ministry of Defence said.

A woman feeds her baby after being evacuated from Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant to Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 3.

Chris Mcgrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The U.K. ministry said in an intelligence update that Russian ground operations are focusing on the eastern part of Ukraine, but missile strikes continue across the country because Moscow wants to disrupt the Ukrainians’ ability to resupply their troops in the east.

The press office of the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moscow has repeatedly denied that it strikes civilian targets, though such attacks have been widely documented. Russian instead accuses Ukraine of attacking civilian targets.

The British ministry said Russia is attacking cities including Odesa, Kherson and Mariupol in order to take over Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline and cut off its sea line of communication and maritime trade.

WATCH: Russian troops breach steel plant in Mariupol

— Ted Kemp

More than 340 civilians were evacuated from Mariupol, Zelenskyy says

Evacuees from Mariupol arrive in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on May 3, 2022 as Russian attacks continue. Another 344 civilians were evacuated from the city and suburbs of Mariupol and are on the way to Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address.

Diego Herrera Carcedo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Another 344 civilians were evacuated from the city and suburbs of Mariupol and are on the way to Zaporizhzhia, a city in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address.

This is the second batch of people rescued from the besieged Ukrainian city following the evacuation of 156 women and children from the Azovstal steel plant who arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday.

“All of them will receive the most caring treatment from our state,” Zelenskyy said.

Russia’s attempt to take over Mariupol has led to grim conditions in the city where thousands are running out of food, water and medical aid, as civilians and soldiers are holed up in the Azovstal steel plant – the last stronghold for fighters in the heavily bombarded city.

— Chelsea Ong

Russian forces largely stalled in eastern and southern Ukraine, Pentagon says

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby holds a news briefing at the Pentagon on May 02, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. Kirby announced the return of public tours of the Pentagon as well as delivered an update on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Russians have made uneven progress in the Donbas region of Ukraine, following weeks of resupply and reposition efforts.

“Russians have not made the kind of progress in the Donbas and in the south that we believe they wanted to make,” Kirby said during a daily Pentagon press briefing. “We do believe they’re behind schedule. We do believe it has been slow at every turn and they have met a stiff Ukrainian resistance,” he added.

Kirby’s comments come as the U.S. and its allies rush to send additional security assistance ahead of what was believed to be an intensifed Russia surge in eastern and southern Ukraine. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden called on Congress to quickly pass $33 billion in additional U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

Biden’s latest military aid package of $800 million announced on April 21, the eighth such installment of security assistance, brings U.S. commitment to $3.4 billion since Russia’s late February invasion.

— Amanda Macias

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