Soldiers wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, some missing arms and legs, were hoisted into the helicopters, whose rotors never stopped spinning. They lifted off with eight or nine wounded fighters that day, Flint said, some of whom were conscious enough to show off cellphone videos of the intense fighting they had endured.
The March 21 mission, captured on videos provided by Flint, lasted only 20 minutes on the ground. “There was just this feeling of happiness, emotional satisfaction that we were able to get these guys out,” Flint said.
In all, Operation Air Corridor, as the effort was known to participants, managed to land helicopters at Azovstal seven times during the next two weeks and rescue 85 gravely wounded soldiers, Flint said. A heavily sedated Sergeant Tsymbal was among those evacuated.
But the helicopters also brought in other soldiers, mostly volunteers, including Pvt. Nikita Zherdev of the Azov Regiment. His father had died in the shelling of Mariupol weeks earlier, and he wrote his sister before taking off telling her to learn to take care of herself. He did not tell her what he thought: that he did not expect to leave alive.
“As soon as we landed at Azovstal, I understood that, wow, things are really happening here,” he said. “Everything was covered in smoke. Everything was under fire. The people who greeted us, shouted, ‘Faster, faster, faster — there are airstrikes every five minutes, the jets are coming.’”
A native of Mariupol, Private Zherdev already knew the troops at Azovstal, but the men he found were withered specters of those soldiers, hungry and exhausted and covered in blood and gun oil after weeks of constant fighting. They were shocked to see him.
DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — Between the cracks of mortar fire and the metallic bangs of Russian self-detonating mines, Yurii, a Ukrainian Army medic, readied an intravenous line for the soldier sprawled on the stretcher below him.
The soldier looked to be in his mid-20s. His face was smeared with dirt and fear.
“Do you remember your name?” Yurii asked.
“Maksym,” the soldier whispered back.
Earlier that morning Maksym had been under a Russian bombardment at the front in eastern Ukraine that had left him severely concussed. Yurii and other Ukrainian medics were tending to him at an aid station barely removed from what has come to be known as the “zero line” where the shelling is relentless.
several anti-vehicle mines around the road and aid station where Yurii and his crew were treating Maksym. Even if the mines are not disturbed, they are set to detonate on a daylong timer.
Ukrainian forces had cleared some of the soda-bottle-shaped explosives, one soldier said, pointing to a video taken on his phone in the predawn darkness that showed troops shooting at a mine until it exploded. But mines were still in the bushes, waiting to detonate.
Yurii and the other medics tried to keep their focus on the wounded soldier. But the immediate demands stretched beyond their checklist of treating intense bleeding or assessing the airway. How to comfort the wounded? How to reassure them that they have survived and made it away from the front? How to give hope even if dozens of their friends have died?
“Don’t be afraid, my friend. You’ve arrived,” Yurii said soothingly as Maksym wormed around on the stretcher, his eyes wide and frantic.
It was clear that in Maksym’s mind, the shelling hadn’t stopped. He was breathing hard, his chest rising and falling in rapid bursts.
“Don’t worry. I am putting the needle in the vein. You’ve arrived, it’s a hard concussion,” Yurii soothed again.
The soldiers who carried Maksym to the aid station piled back in their truck to drive the roughly two miles back to the front line. They were returning to the same task their friend had been carrying out before he was nearly killed: waiting for a Russian attack or for an incoming Russian artillery round to find them.
As they departed, a soldier beyond the trees yelled “Fire!” A Ukrainian mortar launched a shell toward Russian positions. Smoke drifted up from the firing site.
The artillery war in Ukraine’s east is seemingly never-ending. Even without either side attacking or counter attacking, the shelling is constant — wounding and killing and driving those soldiers cowering in trenches and foxholes slowly insane.
At the sound of mortar fire, Maksym lurched on the stretcher once more.
“It’s all good! Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. It’s all fine. All fine. These are ours. These are ours,” Yurii told Maksym, assuring him that he wasn’t being shelled again.
Maksym’s breathing slowed. He covered his face with his hands and then looked around.
The first complete thought Maksym organized and communicated was a string of expletives directed at the Russians.
“Go on, talk to us. You got a wife? You got kids?” Yurii nudged, seizing the opportunity to bring Maksym back among the living.
“The shrapnel,” he muttered.
“Shrapnel?” Yurii asked. He was surprised. Maksym was clearly concussed, but showed no signs of other wounds.
“He’s got shrapnel right here, and here,” Maksym said, his voice trailing off. The medics quickly realized that he was talking about his friend who was wounded when the Russian artillery struck earlier.
“He’s been driven away, taken to the hospital,” Yurii said, though the medic had no idea what had happened to Maksym’s friend. He was just trying to keep his patient from panicking again.
“Is he alive?” Maksym asked cautiously.
“He has to be,” Yurii replied, though he didn’t know.
For Yurii’s ambulance crew and other medics assigned to the area, these types of calls are common. Some days they wait a few miles from the bus station-turned-aid station, the determined pickup point between the front lines and safety, and their 24-hour shift ticks by uneventfully: Yurii calls his wife several times a day. Ihor sleeps. Vova, the son of an armorer, thinks about how to modernize Ukraine’s Soviet-era weaponry.
Other days the casualties are frequent and the medics are left with a constant rotation between the hospital and the aid station as they place bloodied men with tourniquets strapped to their extremities in the back of their ambulances.
Yurii stared down at Maksym, encouraged by his newfound ability to communicate.
“You’re not hurt anywhere else?” Yurii asked.
Maksym put his hand behind his neck and pulled away, looking at his appendage, almost expecting blood to be there.
“We were all covered by shelling,” Maksym said quietly.
“It’s all good, you’re alive,” Yurii said, trying to change the subject. “The main thing is you did well. Good lad.”
As Yurii readied the stretcher and Maksym for the ambulance, an aging red sedan, a Russian Lada, pulled up to the aid station. The Soviet-era staple came to an abrupt halt, practically skidding on the churned up pavement.
The dust settled. In the distance artillery thudded in a familiar rhythm.
A man in a baggy gray T-shirt, clearly distraught, jumped from the car’s driver seat. The passenger opened his door and yelled: “The woman is wounded!”
She was an older woman named Zina, they would soon learn, and she was facedown in the back seat.
Another group of medics would take Maksym to the hospital while Yurii’s crew handled the newly arrived patient in the sedan, the medics decided.
The two men who had driven Zina to the aid station — her husband and her son-in-law — had asked Ukrainian military positions near their home where to take her after shrapnel from an artillery blast struck her head. The troops had directed them to Yurii’s aid station.
In the Lada, Zina’s blood had begun to pool on the fabric. She seemed to be at least in her 50s, unconscious, another civilian wounded in the four-month-old war, like so many who have been caught between the guns.
“Get the stretcher!” Yurii called.
It was not quite 11 a.m., and another of the Russian-strewn mines suddenly exploded near the aid station.
KOROPY, Ukraine — Four men tugged at long strips of fabric to lift a coffin out of the gaping hole in the backyard of a small house. They flung the lid open to reveal the moldy corpse of Oleksiy Ketler, who had been killed instantly by shrapnel when a mortar fell on the road in Koropy, a village outside Khavkiv in northeastern Ukraine, in March.
Mr. Ketler, a father of two young children, would have celebrated his 33rd birthday on June 25, if he had not been outside his house at the wrong time. Now, his body has become another exhibit in Ukraine’s wide-ranging effort to collect evidence to prosecute Russia and its military for war crimes in the brutal killings of Ukrainian civilians.
Experts say the process is proceeding with extraordinary speed and may become the biggest effort in history to hold war criminals to account. But it faces an array of formidable challenges.
rape, execution-style killings and the deportation of what Mr. Belousov said could be tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia — were being investigated.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
At the same time, hundreds of international experts, investigators and prosecutors have descended on Ukraine from an alphabet soup of international agencies.
Early in the war, the top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, arrived in Ukraine with several dozen investigators. But the court, which is based in the Netherlands, tries a limited number of cases, and usually seeks to prosecute only the upper echelon of political and military leaders.
It is also slow: Investigators working on the 2008 Russian-Georgian war did not apply for arrest warrants until this year.
There are a number of other initiatives, too. Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer, is part of a team advising the Ukrainian government on bringing international legal action against Russia. The United Nations has started a commission to investigate human rights violations in Ukraine — with three human rights experts — but cannot establish a formal tribunal because Russia wields veto power on the U.N. Security Council.
Investigators in Poland are collecting testimonies from refugees who fled there to feed to Ukrainian prosecutors. France has sent mobile DNA analysis teams to embed with the Ukrainian authorities to collect evidence. Nongovernmental organizations based in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, are going to territories recently occupied by Russian soldiers to collect witness statements.
The involvement of multiple countries and organizations does not necessarily lead to a more productive investigation, said Wayne Jordash, a British criminal lawyer who lives in Ukraine. Mr. Jordash, who is part of an international task force supporting Ukrainian prosecutors, was critical of some of the efforts to assist Ukraine judicially, describing it as “smoke and mirrors,” without results and clear priorities.
The International Criminal Court’s investigators were only just getting going, he noted, and experts from other countries have also been cycling in for stints of several weeks.
“You can’t just parachute into an investigation for two weeks and expect it to be meaningful,” Mr. Jordash said.
Iva Vukusic, a scholar of post-conflict justice at the University of Utrecht, said, “Resources are being poured in, but maybe down the line we will see that they were not being spent the right way,” for instance, duplicating investigation efforts rather than providing psychosocial support to victims.
Ms. Vukusic pointed out the large size of the endeavor. Across the country, she said, “there are thousands of potential suspects, and thousands of potential trials.” All of the material needs to be properly marshaled and analyzed, she said.
“If you have 100,000 items — videos, statements, documents — if you don’t know what you’re sitting on, it limits the use of material,” Ms. Vukusic said.
She also cautioned that the International Criminal Court’s leadership could face criticism by collaborating too closely with the Ukrainian authorities because, she said, Ukraine was also “an actor in this war.”
She feared Ukrainian officials were setting expectations for justice very high, and possibly wasting scarce resources on absentia trials.
“No big caseis going to be finished in two years or five years because of the scale of the violence and the fact it is going on for so long,” she said.
Mr. Belousov, the Ukrainian war crimes prosecutor, acknowledged as much. “We are playing a long game,” he said. Even if the perpetrator is tried and convicted in absentia, Mr. Belousov said, “We understand in a year, or two or three or five, these guys won’t be able to avoid punishment.”
Mr. Belousov said that he appreciated the international assistance but that coordinating it was the “biggest challenge” law enforcement authorities experienced.
For example, the Kharkiv prosecutors used a shiny new forensic investigation kit donated by the European Union for their exhumation in Koropy, the village in northeast Ukraine. But a police officer from a unit in Dmytrivka, a 45-minute drive west of Kyiv, said they had not seen or met with any international investigators or received any equipment from them.
Mr. Belousov said Ukraine wanted to take the lead in prosecuting the cases — a divergence from previous post-conflict situations in which the national authorities initially left the process to international tribunals.
But most Ukrainian investigators have little experience in these kinds of inquiries.
For example, Andriy Andriychuk, who joined the police force in the region west of Kyiv two years ago, said his work previously involved investigating local disputes or livestock theft. Now it involves “a lot more corpses,” he said.
On a recent sunny afternoon, he was called to a wooded area near the town of Dmytrivka. Several days before, police officers had received a call from foresters who had come upon a man’s grave. The dead man, Mykola Medvid, 56, had been buried with his passport; his hat was hung on top of a cross made out of sticks.
His daughter and his cousin identified his body. The local morgue officially established the cause of death: a fatal shot in the chest.
Since then, his daughter Mariia Tremalo has not heard from the investigators. No witnesses have come forward, and it was unclear who might have killed her father, or why. Still, she is hungry for justice.
“My father will never be returned,” she said. “But I would like the perpetrators to be punished.”
Right now that seems all but impossible.
In Koropy, the village near Kharkiv, Mr. Ketler’s mother, Nadezhda Ketler, was inconsolable as the gravediggers and inspectors worked. She wandered down the road to another part of her property. Six officials stood over her son’s body, photographing and documenting as his best friend, Mykhailo Mykhailenko, who looked petrified and smelled of stale alcohol, identified him.
The next day, Mr. Ketler’s body was taken to the city’s morgue, where the final cause of death was established.
Eventually, Ms. Ketler gathered the strength to show investigators the crater made by the bomb that killed him, leading the police to the exact spot where he died. Ms. Ketler stood looking at the trees as they rustled in the wind. She did not speak to anyone. She said she did not know if a guilty verdict in a war crimes trial, if it ever came, would ease the pain of losing her child.
“I had to bury my son twice,” Ms. Ketler said later. “You understand, this is hard enough to do once, and to have to do it a second time. The pain of a mother will not go anywhere.”
Evelina Riabenko, Diana Poladova and Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.
A little boy blown up by a mine at the beach. A young mother shot in the forehead. A retired teacher killed in her home. Soldiers killing and dying every day by the hundreds. Older people and young people and everyone in between.
A war can be measured by many metrics. Territory won or lost. Geopolitical influence increased or diminished. Treasure acquired or resources depleted. But for the people suffering under the shelling, who hear the whistling of incoming missiles, the crack of gunfire on the streets and the wails of loss out of shattered windows, the death toll is the most telling account of a war.
Many of the articles on this page contain graphic images that readers may find difficult to view.
In Ukraine, no one is quite sure exactly what that toll is, except that many many people have been killed.
An “endless caravan of death,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an official for the devastated city of Mariupol.
In its latest updates, the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said 4,509 civilians had been killed in the conflict. But it is clear that many thousands more have been killed. Ukraine’s chief of police, Ihor Klymenko, said this past week that prosecutors had opened criminal proceedings “for the deaths of more than 12,000 people who were found, in particular, in mass graves.”
And in Mariupol, the Black Sea city flattened by Russian bombardment, Ukrainian officials in exile have said that examinations of mass graves using satellite imagery, witness testimony and other evidence have led them to believe that at least 22,000 were killed — and possibly thousands more.
The casualty figures exclude the thousands believed killed in territories held by Russian forces. And even where Ukraine has regained control, Mr. Klymenko said, it was premature to calculate the dead in mass graves, as more are found every week.
Indeed, finding and identifying the dead is such a daunting challenge, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said in a statement on Saturday, that it required global coordination beyond Ukraine’s national efforts. The prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, said she had met with the International Commission on Missing Persons, based in The Hague, to develop avenues for cooperation.
International and Ukrainian authorities have little access to embattled cities to take accurate counts, and the urban targets, the constant artillery fire and the static nature of the fighting in the contested south and east only adds to the death and horror.
“People are killed indiscriminately or suddenly or without rhyme or reason,” said Richard H. Kohn, a professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He said the incessant artillery fire “kills and maims people.”
“It creates enormous psychological stress on populations,” Mr. Kohn said, “as it does on the combatants,” and “it lasts for a very long time.”
The Russians, eager to preserve an aura of competence, underreport their battlefield losses. The Ukrainians, desperate to maintain morale as the shells fall, do the same. Civilian casualties are an unknown variable, multiplied by grisly factors like collapsing buildings and the unreported victims of occupied towns.
Children are not protected from the indiscriminate violence. The United Nations’ agency for the protection of children in emergency situations has estimated that at least three children have died each day since the war started in February. That is only an estimate.
Mariupol — the city that has become symbolic of Ukraine’s resistance, Russia’s unrelenting shelling and the war’s savagery — is still burying corpses.
“In our city, there are a lot of mass graves, a lot of spontaneous graves, and some bodies are still in the street,” Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said last Monday.
That toll has heightened dread about the losses in the 20 percent of Ukraine now under Russian occupation. Some places, like Sievierodonetsk, have been basically reduced to rubble by advancing Russian forces.
Early in the war, as Russia tried, and failed, to take the capital, Kyiv, its forces added to the death toll with shocking brutality. In Bucha, they shot civilians dead in their cars, homes and gardens, left corpses in the street and even burned them and dumped them in a parking lot. And when the Russian armored columns retreated, they left more dead in their wake.
At least 1,500 civilians were killed in the Kyiv region alone, according to Mr. Klymenko. They included two sisters in Bucha — one a retired teacher and the other disabled.
“Why would you kill a grandma?” asked Serhiy, a neighbor of the sisters.
The Ukrainian army is taking heavy losses. By the government’s own estimates, as many as 200 soldiers are dying every day. In towns and cities across the country, even those far from the front lines, military funerals take place nearly daily for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where the fighting is now heaviest.
The dead are often buried quickly, and in shallow graves.
“I feel numb,” said Antoniy, a morgue worker in Lviv, in western Ukraine. “Even when someone is telling me a joke that I know is funny, I can’t laugh.”
Regardless of when or how the war ends, Professor Kohn said, trauma, loss, displacement and fear all become “part of the culture of a country.”
Many of the Russians ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin to invade Ukraine under the false pretenses of liberating the country from Nazis are not coming home, either. In April, Western countries estimated that Russia had lost about 15,000 soldiers in Ukraine; on Friday, Ukraine put the estimate at 33,000.
The true toll is unknown, and will not be coming from Moscow: Its last announcement, on March 25, said that a total of 1,351 Russian soldiers had died.
In the months after the invasion began, local news websites across Russia compiled “memory pages” that listed the names of hometown soldiers who had died. Then, this month, they deleted them: A court ruled that such lists were state secrets.
“We apologize,” said the site 74.ru in Chelyabinsk in Siberia, “to the mothers and fathers, wives and children, relatives and friends of the servicemen who have died during the special military operation in Ukraine.”
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Just to enter Sievierodonetsk, Ukrainian soldiers run a gantlet of Russian artillery shells zeroed in on the only access route: a bridge littered with the burned husks of cars and trucks that didn’t make it.
And once inside the city in eastern Ukraine, the focus of both armies for the past several weeks, Ukrainian soldiers battle Russians in back-and forth combat for control of deserted, destroyed neighborhoods.
Ukraine’s leaders now face a key strategic decision: whether to withdraw from the midsize city and take up more defensible positions, or to remain and risk being boxed in if the bridge is blown up. It reflects the choices the country has had to make since the Russian invasion began, between giving ground to avert death and destruction in the short term, and holding out against long odds in hopes it will later pay off.
In Sievierodonetsk, that calculation has taken on significance beyond the city’s limited military importance. In remarks to journalists on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to Sievierodonetsk and its neighbor across the river, Lysychansk, as “dead cities” ravaged by Russian attacks and nearly empty of civilians.
And yet he insisted there was a compelling reason to stay and fight: Ukraine’s position throughout the war has been that it intends to hold onto its sovereign territory, and not yield it to Moscow.
Retreating now to better positions on higher ground across the Seversky Donets River, and then fighting to retake the city later, he said, would be harder and carry a higher price in bloodshed than holding on.
“It will be very costly for you to return, in terms of the number of people killed, the number of losses,” Mr. Zelensky said.
“Our heroes are not giving up positions in Sievierodonetsk,” he added. “Fierce urban combat continues in the city.”
It was a rare public rumination by Mr. Zelensky on strategic decision-making in the war, providing a window into the goals of his government and its military. Sievierodonetsk is the last major city in the breakaway region of Luhansk that the Russians have not taken; capturing it would give them near-total control of that enclave.
There are other factors as well. Falling back could be demoralizing to Ukraine’s forces. And some Ukrainian soldiers said it is worth drawing out the phase of urban combat to inflict more casualties on the already depleted Russian forces, and possibly damage their morale.
It was also possible Mr. Zelensky was aiding the military with misdirection by signaling one intention while quietly pursuing an opposite course of action.
The government has not said how many military casualties Ukraine has suffered overall since the Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin ordered the invasion in February. But Mr. Zelensky said last week that in the recent, intense fighting, each day his country was losing 60 to 100 soldiers killed and 500 wounded. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said Tuesday that 6,489 Ukrainian service members had been captured.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry this week estimated civilian casualties at 40,000 killed or wounded, though some government officials say the true figures are higher. Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that ruptured sewer and water pipes in the southern city of Mariupol, seized by Russia after a devastating siege, have created a risk of severe disease outbreaks that would raise the civilian toll.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk, part of Luhansk and the broader Donbas region in the east, has raged now for weeks, and some Ukrainian soldiers have questioned why the army has not ordered a tactical retreat.
“They are killing a lot of our guys,” said a soldier who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Kubik, interviewed last week while smoking beside a road in the town of Siversk, a staging area to the west of the fighting. He had recently rotated away from positions near Sievierodonetsk.
“Let them come forward a little bit, let them think they have captured the town, and then we will meet them beautifully” from the more advantageous position, he said.
The city lies on the mostly flat, eastern bank of the Seversky Donets. The western bank, in contrast, rises in a prominent hill that provides commanding views and firing positions.
Earlier in the war, Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded in Mariupol and fought for weeks, eventually retreating to hold just a tiny pocket of ground in a steel factory complex where they sheltered in bunkers, before Mr. Zelensky ordered the holdouts to surrender rather than be killed.
Ukrainian commanders decided to avert a smaller-scale version of that siege earlier this week in Sviatohirsk, a town lying on the low bank of the Seversky Donets.
Trying to trap Ukrainian troops in the town, Russian forces had been firing artillery at their only remaining route across the river, a bridge near an Orthodox monastery that was also frequently hit. On Monday, the Ukrainian army pulled back, blew up the bridge and took up positions on the river’s high bank, Ukrainian officials said.
Sievierodonetsk was once a sleepy, provincial backwater of about 100,000 residents, with streets lined with poplar trees and a skyline dominated by smokestacks of a fertilizer factory.
Now it is a largely abandoned ruin where battle lines sway often, with each side at times claiming to have expelled the other from part of the city. On Tuesday, Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian military governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces were again storming positions. “Combat continues,” he said.
Russian artillery fire into the potential fallback position on the high bank, where Lysychansk lies, has also been ferocious. Shelling hit a market, a mining academy and a school, Mr. Haidai said. The strike on the market touched off a fire that burned through the day Monday. Two civilians were wounded.
The Ukrainian government has been emphasizing the tenuousness of its positions in the battle for Donbas, the mining and farming region now mostly controlled by Russian forces.
The pivotal access bridge to Sievierodonetsk is a panorama of destruction, testifying to the difficulty and risk to Ukraine in holding even some portion of the city.
A video recorded by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporters who entered on a resupply run last week showed the mayhem on the span: crossing it meant weaving between the burned husks of cars and shell craters in the bridge deck.
The debris has piled up over the past two weeks. In an interview in late May, a soldier at a sandbagged checkpoint at the western edge of the bridge cautioned that Russian artillery spotters had the span — clear of debris at the time — under observation and opened fire whenever a car drove over. Two other bridges into the city were destroyed earlier in May.
Mr. Haidai has justified Ukraine’s efforts to hold Sievierodonetsk as partly a matter of symbolic resistance.
“Strategically, the city of Sievierodonetsk is not of great importance,” he said over the weekend. The high opposite riverbank is more significant militarily, he said. “But politically, Sievierodonetsk is a regional center. Its liberation will lift our morale substantially and demoralize the Russians.”
Still, Mr. Zelensky said he was open to reconsidering his decision based on developments. Either command — to hold ground or to retreat — had potential downsides, he said.
“In the first option there is risk, in the second option there is risk,” he said.
BRUSSELS — The European Union on Monday agreed to ban most imports of Russian oil, the harshest economic penalty yet imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and potentially the biggest sacrifice by Europe, itself.
The deal is the latest and most far-reaching demonstration that over more than three months of war, in reaction to mounting Russian aggression and atrocities, European leaders have grown willing to take steps they considered too extreme when the invasion began. They have already barred imports of Russian natural gas, cut off Russian banks from global financial networks, frozen Russian assets and sent advanced weaponry to Ukraine.
After weeks of intense wrangling, E.U. leaders meeting in Brussels endorsed an embargo on Russian oil delivered by tankers, the primary method, with commitments to reduce imports by pipeline, according to a draft agreement seen by The New York Times. The deal was announced in a late-night tweet by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, though many details remain to be hashed out.
The endorsement came as a multipronged Kremlin assault closed in on the easternmost Ukrainian-controlled city, Sievierodonetsk. Russian forces continued their pattern of bombarding cities and towns, including civilian areas, reducing them to depopulated wastelands before attempting to seize control.
At the same time, Ukraine’s military mounted a counteroffensive to retake the strategic southern city of Kherson. And a car bombing in another Russian-held city, Melitopol, hinted at the kind of fierce resistance the occupiers may face.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s war machinery is financed by Russia’s sales of crude and refined petroleum and natural gas, which account for most of the country’s export revenue, collected primarily by state-controlled energy companies. With the war driving up prices, the European Union countries alone have been paying $23 billion a month for Russian oil.
Analysts say that Russia, offering discounts compared to the prices on world markets, will continue to find some buyers for its oil, but that sales volume and profits are likely to drop significantly once the embargo takes effect.
Europe relies heavily on Russian fuels — 27 percent of the crude oil imported to the European Union comes from Russia — and while E.U. countries are scrambling for alternatives, officials have warned that the financial cost to them will be high. Other sources are expected to be more expensive, if they can be arranged; gas and oil shortages are a real possibility.
The debate over an oil embargo has also exposed the potential vulnerability of the European bloc, just as Sweden’s and Finland’s requests to join NATO have shown fractures within that alliance. Diplomats express confidence that such differences can be resolved, but they offer reminders that the unity the United States and its allies have shown so far in opposing Russia is not guaranteed.
Hungary’s strongman leader, Viktor Orban, whose country depends more than Western Europe on Russian energy, had held up any agreement on an oil embargo, calling it an “atomic bomb” to the Hungarian economy.
The dispute illustrates how the E.U. practice of requiring unanimity among the 27 member nations for major decisions can become a weakness — particularly if Mr. Orban, who has a friendly relationship with Mr. Putin, is called on to take further steps to isolate Russia.
The limited embargo that European leaders endorsed was tailored to win Mr. Orban’s support. Prohibiting Russian oil deliveries aboard tankers would eliminate two-thirds of E.U. imports, while having no effect on Hungary, a landlocked nation. Arriving at the E.U. summit meeting on Monday, Mr. Orban said of the pipeline exemption, “It’s a good approach.”
Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany, which also receive Russian oil by pipeline, were expected to commit to weaning themselves from that source; Hungary is not expected to give any such assurance.
In NATO, which also operates by consensus, Turkey has blocked the admission of Finland and Sweden, which have been sufficiently alarmed by Russia’s war on Ukraine to abandon their long-held neutrality. Western diplomats predict that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has been as contentious a partner to NATO as Mr. Orban has been to the European Union, will wring concessions from the allies but ultimately accede.
On the battlefields of the eastern Donbas region, where Russia is focused on seizing more territory, the most intense combat is around the battered, adjacent cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, among the most important remaining pockets of Ukrainian control. After weeks of shelling, Russian forces have fought their way into “the northeastern and southeastern outskirts” of Sievierodonetsk, the Ukrainian defense ministry said in a statement, adding that Russia had funneled still more war matériel from Russia into the Donbas.
Fighting across Donbas reached “maximum intensity,” said Col. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, the defense ministry spokesman. He added, “Russian invaders shelled the entire front line, trying to hit our deep defensive positions with artillery fire.”
Amid reports of Russian war crimes against civilians, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, issued a call to residents of Russian-occupied territory to flee however they can to Ukrainian-controlled areas, as millions already have. It is hard and dangerous, she conceded, but “ultimately, it is a question of your safety and that of your children.”
A French journalist was killed on Monday near Lysychansk when a shell exploded near the evacuation bus he was riding in, according to Ukrainian and French officials, and his employer, the television news channel BFM TV. The journalist, Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, suffered a lethal shrapnel wound to the neck, said Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, who said the shell was fired by Russian forces.
At least seven other journalists have been killed while covering the conflict, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The sheer weight of Russia’s military and the brutality of its tactics have yielded territorial gains in the east, but it has suffered heavy losses, and Western analysts say it is running short of ready resources.
“Russia has likely suffered devastating losses amongst its mid and junior ranking officers,” the British defense ministry said on Monday in the latest intelligence update it has made public. Battalions that the Russians are cobbling together “from survivors of multiple units are likely to be less effective.”
Perhaps most ominous for Moscow, the British cited “multiple credible reports of localized mutinies amongst Russia’s forces.”
Hoping to spread Russian forces thinner than they already are, Ukraine over the weekend launched a counteroffensive more than 300 miles away from Sievierodonetsk, aimed at retaking Kherson, a strategic port on the lower Dnipro River in south-central Ukraine. It was the first major city to fall to the Russians, less than a week after the invasion.
“The Ukrainian counterattack does not appear likely to retake substantial territory in the near term,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington said in an assessment released on Sunday, but it will disrupt Russian operations across the south, “and potentially force Russia to deploy reinforcements to the Kherson region, which is predominantly held by substandard units.”
In Melitopol, the Kremlin-appointed regional administration said a car bombing had injured two aid workers and called it “a terrorist attack aimed at destabilizing the peaceful life of the city.” People have protested the occupation in Melitopol, where Russian forces have kidnapped local officials and replaced them.
Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of Melitopol — who was abducted by Russian forces and then returned to Ukraine in a prisoner swap — said he did not know who was responsible for the bombing, but predicted that “the ground will burn” in Melitopol until Russians leave the city.
Russian forces have held onto most of the areas they conquered in the south early in the war. But one band of fighters held out for weeks in a steel mill complex in the southern city of Mariupol, tying down significant Russian forces before the survivors surrendered this month.
And in the first weeks of the war, Russian offensives in the north aimed at Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, the second-largest city, became hopelessly bogged down. Moscow gave up on those campaigns, at least temporarily, to concentrate on Donbas, and Ukrainians have retaken some of the lost territory.
The failure of those offensives and the resistance in Mariupol contributed to a shift in Russian tactics to a slower, more grinding approach, with little apparent concern for civilian casualties or physical destruction.
Describing the constant shelling of Sievierodonetsk, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in a video posted online on Sunday night, “They don’t care how many lives they will have to pay.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul, Cassandra Vinograd and Stanley Reed from London, Carlotta Gall from Druzhkivka, Ukraine, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.
KRAKOW, Poland — Ukrainian troops, emboldened by sophisticated weapons and long-range artillery supplied by the West, went on the offensive Friday against Russian forces in the northeast, seeking to drive them back from two key cities as the war plunged more deeply into a grinding, town-for-town battle.
After weeks of intense fighting along a 300-mile-long front, neither side has been able to achieve a major breakthrough, with one army taking a few villages one day, only to lose just as many in the following days. In its latest effort to reclaim territory, the Ukrainian military said that “fierce battles” were being waged as it fought to retake Russia-controlled areas around Kharkiv in the northeast and Izium in the east.
The stepped-up combat came as the White House announced on Friday that President Biden would meet virtually on Sunday with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and the leaders of the G7, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Additionally, President Biden is sending a new security package to Ukraine worth $150 million, according to an administration official, who says it will include 25,000 artillery rounds, counter-artillery radars, jamming equipment and other field equipment.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, noted that the leaders would convene as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia prepares to celebrate the annual holiday of Victory Day on Monday with military parades and speeches commemorating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany.
The holiday has intensified fears in Ukraine and some Western capitals that Mr. Putin could exploit the occasion to expand his Feb. 24 invasion, after his initial drive failed to rout the Ukrainian military and topple the government.
“While he expected to be marching through the streets of Kyiv, that’s actually not what is going to happen,” Ms. Psaki said. She called the G7 meeting “an opportunity to not only show how unified the West is in confronting the aggression and the invasion by President Putin, but also to show that unity requires work.”
Ukraine on Friday urged civilians to brace for heavier assaults ahead of Victory Day in Russia, warning them to avoid large gatherings and putting in place new curfews from Ivano-Frankivsk in the west to Zaporizhzhia in the southeast.
Ukrainian police forces were also placed on heightened alert ahead of the holiday, which will be commemorated in Russia with military parades in Moscow and hundreds of other cities.
Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, warned civilians that they could risk their lives by gathering in crowded places.
“We all remember what happened at the train station in Kramatorsk,” Mr. Denysenko said on Telegram, referring to a devastating missile strike in that eastern city last month, which killed dozens of people as they crowded on railway platforms, trying the flee the invasion.
“Be vigilant,” Mr. Denysenko said. “This is the most important thing.”
The regional governor of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Sergei Haidai, warned that Russian forces were preparing for a “major offensive” in the next few days against a pair of eastern cities, Severodonetsk and Popsana. He assailed what he called “continued horror” in the region, where he said that the latest Russian shelling had killed two people and destroyed dozens of houses.
The pace of Russian missile strikes across Ukraine has been intensifying in recent days as Moscow tries to slow the flow of Western arms across the country. But as with so many aspects of the war, uncertainty about Mr. Putin’s intentions runs deep.
There is rampant speculation that he might use the upcoming holiday to convert what he calls a “special military operation” into an all-out war, which would create a justification for a mass mobilization of Russian troops and set the stage for a more broad-ranging conflict. Kremlin officials have denied any such plans. But they also had denied plans to invade Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have said that a military draft in Russia could provoke a backlash among its citizens, many of whom, polls show, still view the war as a largely distant conflict filtered through the convoluted and sometimes conflicting narratives provided by state-controlled media.
“General mobilization in Russia is beneficial to us,” Oleksei Arestovych, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, said during an interview on Ukrainian television this week. “It can lead to a revolution.”
Some Western analysts speculate that Mr. Putin may instead point to the territory that Moscow has already seized in eastern Ukraine to bolster his false claims that Russia is liberating the region from Nazis.
The Pentagon, for its part, has avoided stoking speculation about Mr. Putin’s Victory Day plans.
“What they plan to do or say on Victory Day, that’s really up to them,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Thursday. “I don’t think we have a perfect sense.”
Fears that Russia could intensify its assault came as the United Nations Security Council adopted a statement on Friday supporting efforts by the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, to broker a diplomatic resolution to the war.
The statement, initiated by Mexico and Norway, was the first action regarding Ukraine that the council had unanimously approved since the invasion began. Russia supported the statement, which did not call the conflict a “war,” a term the Kremlin forbids.
Mr. Zelensky insisted on Friday that peace talks cannot resume until Russian forces pull back to where they were before the invasion. Still, he did not foreclose the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
“Not all the bridges are destroyed,” he said, speaking remotely at a virtual event held by Chatham House, a British research organization.
Alexey Zaitsev, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on Friday that talks between Russia and Ukraine were “in a state of stagnation,” Russian state media reported.
Mr. Zaitsev blamed NATO countries for prolonging the war by shipping billions of dollars in arms to Ukraine, even as those countries have urged Mr. Putin to withdraw his troops.
“This leads to an extension of hostilities, more destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky said that Russian propagandists had spent years fueling “hatred” that had driven Russian soldiers to “hunt” civilians, destroy cities and commit the kind of atrocities seen in the besieged southern port of Mariupol. Much of the city, once home to more than 400,000 people, has been leveled, and it has become a potent symbol of the devastation wrought by Russia in Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky said Russia’s determination to destroy the last Ukrainian fighters holed up with desperate civilians in bunkers beneath the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol only underscored the “cruelty” that has defined the invasion.
“This is terrorism and hatred,” he said.
On Friday, about 50 women, children and elderly people who had been trapped beneath the Azovstal plant in Mariupol were evacuated in a humanitarian convoy, according to a high-ranking Ukrainian official and Russian state media. The official, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereschuk, said the evacuation had been “extremely slow” because Russian troops violated a cease-fire.
Nearly 500 people have managed to leave the Azovstal plant, Mariupol and surrounding areas in recent days with help from United Nations and the Red Cross, according to Mr. Guterres.
As the fighting drags on, concerns are growing that the war could exacerbate a global hunger crisis.
The United Nations said on Friday that there was mounting evidence that Russian troops had looted tons of Ukrainian grain and destroyed grain storage facilities, adding to a disruption in exports that has already caused a surge in global prices, with devastating consequences for poor countries.
At the same time, the organization’s anti-hunger agency, the World Food Program, called for the reopening of ports in the Odesa area of southern Ukraine so that food produced in the war-torn country can flow freely to the rest of the world. Ukraine, a leading grain grower, had some 14 million tons in storage available for export, but Russia’s blockade of the country’s Black Sea ports has prevented distribution.
“Right now, Ukraine’s grain silos are full,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, while “44 million people around the world are marching towards starvation.”
Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht reported from Krakow, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Rick Gladstone from Eastham, Mass., Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.
“The Russians were sitting on the curb, drinking water from plastic bottles, just watching me,” she said. “They didn’t say anything, they didn’t show any emotion. They were like an audience at the theater.”
That’s when she let out a “wild cry, like something I have never heard,” her father said.
“Shoot me!” she screamed. “Shoot me and the cat!”
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Mariupol evacuation. Ukrainian officials vowed to continue a large-scale evacuation from Mariupol, despite renewed Russian shelling. The evacuation is seen as the best and possibly last hope for hundreds of civilians sheltering in bunkers beneath the wreckage of the Azovstal steel plant.
Moscow’s next move? Russia appears to be preparing to annex two regions in eastern Ukraine and possibly a third in the country’s south, a senior American diplomat said. The official said that the Kremlin would most likely stage “sham” elections to formally seize control.
She was looking at the soldiers, staring at their boots, but the commander eventually lowered his gun and said, “I do not kill women.”
He gave Iryna and her father three minutes to leave.
Bucha’s population is normally around 40,000, but all but 3,000 to 4,000 residents had fled before the Russian occupation, city officials said. Around 400 civilians are thought to have been killed, meaning about one of 10 people who were here.
Some were shot execution style with hands tied behind their backs. Others were horribly beaten. Many were like Oleh: no military experience, unarmed and posing no obvious threat.
So many bodies were left on Bucha’s streets that city officials said they were worried about a plague. But they didn’t have enough workers to collect the dead. So they drafted volunteers. One of them was Vladyslav Minchenko, a tattoo artist.
“The most blood I had ever seen was in a piercing,” he said wryly.
But soon he was picking up dead people and body parts, zipping them into black bags and taking them to a communal grave outside Bucha’s main church. He retrieved Oleh’s body, with its shattered head, he said, which was verified by video evidence.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia claimed victory in Mariupol on Thursday despite persistent fighting there, publicly calling off an assault on the final Ukrainian stronghold in the devastated city in a stark display of the Kremlin’s desire to present a success to the Russian public.
Mr. Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, in a choreographed meeting shown on Russian television, not to storm the sprawling, fortress-like Azovstal steel mill complex where 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were said to be holed up, and instead to blockade the plant “so that a fly can’t get through.” That avoids, for now, a bloody battle in the strategic port city that would add to Russia’s mounting casualty toll and tie down troops who could be deployed to the broader battle for eastern Ukraine.
“Of course, getting control of such an important center in the south as Mariupol is a success,” Mr. Putin was shown telling Mr. Shoigu, though the city is not yet fully under Russian control. “Congratulations.”
The fight for Mariupol carries enormous significance for both sides. It is the last pocket of serious resistance in the land bridge the Kremlin has created between territory it already holds in the Donbas region in the east and the Crimean Peninsula in the south. It is also home to much of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, filled with far-right fighters who give a sheen of credibility to Mr. Putin’s false claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that he is “denazifying” the country.
The battle for the city also illustrates both the brutality of the Russian invasion and its struggles — truths that have galvanized much of the world but that Moscow has worked hard to conceal from its own people. Mariupol has been under siege for more than a month, much of it lies in ruins, and satellite images show a growing mass grave on the city’s outskirts. Roughly three-quarters of the residents have fled and, according to Ukrainian officials, about 20,000 civilians there have been killed — yet it is still not fully conquered.
Russia is shifting the focus of the war to gaining territory and wiping out Ukrainian forces in Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine since 2014. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday in an intelligence assessment that the Kremlin is eager to make swift gains that it can trumpet on May 9, at the annual celebrations of victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
At the White House, President Biden said the fight for Donbas was “going to be more limited in terms of geography but not in terms of brutality,” compared to the early phase of the war. But, he added, Russia will “never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine.”
Mr. Biden announced another $800 million package of weapons for Ukraine, including dozens of heavy howitzers, 144,000 shells for them, and tactical drones, bringing total military aid this year to well above $3 billion. The weapons supplied by NATO nations are becoming increasingly heavy and sophisticated, reflecting an expected shift in the nature of combat as the war pivots to Donbas, but the president said some of armaments will remain secret.
“We won’t always be able to advertise everything that we, that our partners are doing,” Mr. Biden said. Referring to the U.S.-made antitank missile that Ukrainians have used to devastating effect, he added, “To modernize Teddy Roosevelt’s advice, sometimes we will speak softly and carry a large Javelin.”
Mr. Biden also banned ships tied to Russia from U.S. ports, and announced $500 million in economic aid to Ukraine — though the government in Kyiv told the International Monetary Fund that over the next three months it will need $15 billion. The White House also detailed plans for accepting up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, saying that U.S. citizens can begin applying to sponsor the immigrants on Monday.
The war in Ukraine took center stage in the French presidential campaign in a televised debate Wednesday night between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, who has in the past praised Mr. Putin. She spoke against arming Ukraine and said Mr. Macron’s efforts to cut imports of Russian energy would hurt France economically. He replied, “you are, in fact, in Russia’s grip,” noting that Ms. Le Pen’s party had borrowed from a Kremlin-linked bank.
The Kremlin worked quickly to portray the battle for Mariupol as a success. Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that there was now “an opportunity to start establishing a peaceful life” in Mariupol and start “returning the population to their homes.”
Mr. Peskov described the Azovstal steel plant — an immense Soviet-era complex near the city center — as “a separate facility” with no impact on life elsewhere in the city. Ukrainian fighters have been hiding for weeks in the plant’s underground bunkers, along with about 1,000 civilians, amid rising concerns they lack food and water.
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Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, said on Wednesday that his troops would soon help Russia capture the Azovstal plant in its entirety. In Thursday’s televised meeting, Mr. Shoigu told Mr. Putin that it would take three to four days to clear the plant.
But Mr. Putin responded by calling the storming of the plant “impractical,” and added, “I order it to be canceled.”
It was not clear what that would mean on the ground; shelling and rocket attacks on the steel mill complex continued on Thursday, Staff Sgt. Leonid Kuznetsov of the Ukrainian National Guard, one of the soldiers there, said via text message. He said that shortly before he heard about Mr. Putin’s public order, Russian troops had attempted to storm the plant, coming within about 20 meters of his hide-out. The Ukrainians, he said, were running out of ammunition.
In directing Mr. Shoigu on a national broadcast, Mr. Putin, who made the decision to go to war, presented himself as a rational and humane leader. “This is the case when we must think — that is, we must always think, but even more so in this case — about preserving the life and health of our soldiers and officers,” he said. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities.”
Implicit in his statement was a potential credibility challenge for Mr. Putin, stemming from his unwillingness to admit setbacks and blunders in the war to his own people. The government and military have not acknowledged the deaths of Russian sailors on the missile cruiser Moskva, pride of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which was sunk last week, but information about missing troops is increasingly circulating online.
Coming after Russia’s decision last month to abandon its stalled campaign in the north of Ukraine, the sinking of the Moskva — Ukraine claims to have hit it with two missiles — and the morass in Mariupol, once a thriving industrial and shipping hub, underscore the systemic weaknesses bedeviling the Russian military.
But costly as Mariupol has been for Russia, it is far costlier for Ukraine. Civilian casualties are high, though for now there are only rough estimates, and nearly all the vital infrastructure — including some of Ukraine’s biggest export-oriented enterprises — have been destroyed. Hospitals, theaters, schools and homes have been reduced to rubble.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Thursday that he would trade Russian soldiers who had been taken prisoner for the civilians sheltered at Azovstal, but he said that Russia had not yet responded to the offer.
Agreements to evacuate civilians en masse or bring in vital aid have mostly been thwarted, and have sometimes turned deadly, largely because Russian units have halted or fired on aid convoys. But day by day, people have managed to escape, on their own or in small groups.
On Thursday, a yellow bus carrying dozens of people from Mariupol arrived in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, where passengers described weeks hiding in basements, cold and hungry, amid endless shelling. They escaped in a harrowing, all-night drive through Russian-held territory, past countless checkpoints manned by jumpy Russian soldiers.
“In the city everything is destroyed, it’s terrifying,” said Matvei Popko, 10, who had fled with his mother, father and grandmother. “At any moment your home could get hit and collapse. For a little more than a month we lived in the basement.”
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of forcibly deporting hundreds of thousands of civilians, including a large number from the Mariupol area, to Russian territory, for use as propaganda fodder and a bargaining chip. Russia denies the charge, which is a potential war crime.
The weeks of heavy fighting in Mariupol tied up a significant chunk of Russia’s combat power; at one point the battle was estimated by military analysts to include roughly 10 percent of all the Russian forces in Ukraine.
On Thursday, a Russian video news report from the scene showed a convoy of armored vehicles moving out of Mariupol. Seymon Pegov, a pro-Kremlin reporter embedded with the Russian forces in the city, interviewed Timur Kurilkin, a commander of a separatist battalion from Donetsk, a city in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
“We are going home, to Donetsk,” said Mr. Kurilkin, walking past the vehicles. “Our next battle is tomorrow,” he said, without specifying where.
In Mariupol, Russia is already seeking to establish authority over civilian life. Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, promised high school seniors that they would receive diplomas certified by the separatist entity.
On Wednesday, Andrei Turchak, a top official in Mr. Putin’s party, visited a school in Mariupol, which has already switched to Russian-language curriculum. In a video of his visit, posted to social media, he said, “Many textbooks have already been delivered and these deliveries will continue.”
Anton Troianovski reported from Hamburg, Germany, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, David E. Sanger and Zach Montague from Washington, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Alan Yuhas from New York, and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland.
In a Russian-occupied village, five men went off to feed cattle. Their relatives and neighbors are wondering what happened to them.
HUSARIVKA, Ukraine — The cows wouldn’t stop screaming.
Russian soldiers had occupied this remote village in eastern Ukraine for about two weeks and were using a farm as a base. But the animals at the farm hadn’t been fed. Their incessant bleating was wearing on both occupiers and townspeople.
A group of five residents from Husarivka, an unassuming agricultural village of around 1,000 people, went to tend the cattle.
They were never heard from again.
“My two nephews disappeared. They went to feed the cows on the farm,” said Svitlana Tarusyna, 70. “They are gone, vanished.”
What transpired in Husarivka has all the horrifying elements of the more widely publicized episodes involving Russian brutality: indiscriminate killings, abuse and torture taking place over the better part of a month.
considering applying for membership in the alliance. Dmitri A. Medvedev, Russia’s former president and prime minister, said Moscow would be forced to “seriously strengthen” its defenses in the Baltics if the two countries were to join.
The five men fed the cows and tended to their duties. But as they left, something on the farm exploded, residents recalled. Whether it was an artillery strike or an attempt at sabotage is unclear, but it seemed to contribute to their disappearance; Mr. Doroshenko stated that the Russians captured the men after the explosion. It is possible they were behind some type of attack on the Russian headquarters.
“They only got to the crossroad and were seized,” Mr. Doroshenko said.
Two other people near the farm also went missing that day, Mr. Doroshenko added. Roughly a week later, on March 24, a Russian sniper shot and killed Andriy Mashchenko as he rode home on his bicycle. He had been sheltering in a neighbor’s basement during an artillery barrage. He died on Peace Street.
Under heavy bombardment, the Russians retreated from Husarivka about two days later, and Ukrainian forces swept through afterward. The town’s casualty tally during the occupation: seven people missing, two killed by gunfire and at least two by shelling.
Evidence scattered around the town showed how artillery had ruled the day. Spent rockets lay in fields. Roofs were caved in. The rusted hulks of Russian vehicles were seemingly everywhere. In one armored personnel carrier, the corpse of what was presumed to be a Russian soldier remained, barely recognizable as someone’s son.
But as Ukrainian soldiers sifted through the battlefield wreckage after their victory, they found something on Petrusenko Street. It was in a backyard basement sealed shut by a rusted metal door.
“In this cellar the bodies were found,” said Olexiy, a chief investigator in the region who declined to provide his last name for security reasons. He gestured down into a soot-covered hole. “They were covered by car tires and burned,” he said.
“There is no way to tell the cause of their death,” he added, “We found three hands, two legs, three skulls.”
The bodies have yet to be identified, he said. Residents of Husarivka believe the three had been part of the group of five who disappeared. Images provided to The New York Times clearly showed that a rubber work boot was melted to the foot of one leg.
But hauntingly, no one knows for sure what happened to the five men. Many of the cows they went to feed ended up being killed by the shelling.