Ukraine’s military worked Tuesday to evacuate its remaining fighters from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol where three months of Russian bombing has left the besieged port city in ruins.
Ukrainian officials said more than 260 fighters were evacuated Monday.
Fifty-three seriously injured fighters were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol, Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said. Novoazovsk is under the control of Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists.
Another 211 fighters were taken to the town of Olenivka, an area also controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Malyar said, adding that the evacuees would be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia.
During his nightly video address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussed the evacuation of soldiers from Mariupol.
“I want to emphasize — Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle,” Zelenskyy said. “I think that every adequate person will understand these words. The operation to rescue the defenders of Mariupol was started by our military and intelligence officers. To bring the boys home, the work continues, and this work needs delicacy. And time.”
Malyar said efforts are being taken to rescue the remaining fighters inside the plant, the last stronghold of resistance in the ruined southern port city of Mariupol.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time,” she said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”
Also Monday, Ukraine said its forces had pushed back Russian troops in the Kharkiv region in a counter-offensive that allowed the Ukrainians to reach the Russian border.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry posted a video showing what it said were its troops at the border, with one soldier telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “We are here.”
A senior U.S. Defense official said the Ukrainian troops were within 3 or 4 kilometers of the Russian border.
After repelling Russian advances on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Ukrainian forces have regained territory in the region and sought to push Russia from its staging area in Izyum as it focuses on the southeastern Donbas region.
“Kremlin dreamed of capturing Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa, then at least the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted Monday. “Now, Russian troops are concentrated on the Luhansk region due to lack of forces. We continue the treatment of imperial megalomania and make Moscow face reality.”
Donetsk and Luhansk are in the Donbas region.
In Washington, the senior U.S. defense official reported heavy artillery fighting Monday in Donetsk, but said Russian gains were “uneven, slow, incremental, short and small.”
“We do know that the Russians continue to take casualties,” the official said. “They continue to lose equipment and systems every day.”
Western countries allied with Ukraine are continuing to send more weaponry to Kyiv’s forces, with 10 deliveries via airlift from seven nations in the past 24 hours, the U.S. defense official told reporters during a background call Monday.
Sweden on Tuesday signed a formal request to join the NATO military alliance, a move opposed by Russia and which must first be approved by the 30 existing members.
Sweden’s candidacy, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ends two centuries of military non-alignment and comes after the country’s governing party dropped its opposition.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told lawmakers Monday that Sweden “needs formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO.”
Leaders in Finland have indicated support for their own NATO membership, with lawmakers expected to give their approval Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Monday that Russia would respond if NATO bolstered its military presence in Finland and Sweden.
Putin told leaders of a Russian-dominated military alliance of former Soviet states that there was no direct threat from NATO by adding the two countries to its alliance but said, “The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response.”
“What that [response] will be — we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said at the Grand Kremlin Palace. “Problems are being created for no reason at all. We shall react accordingly.”
National security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.