With the enemy close and tensions high, some vigilantism emerged. Residents beat an apparently intoxicated man who had started a fire with a cigarette.

The deputy mayor, Oleksandr Marchenko, said in an interview that Russians were closing in from three sides about six miles outside town, pointing to smoke from burning villages nearby. An outdoor market was reduced to a tangle of twisted sheet metal from obliterated stalls. In one backyard, a body lay under a sheet beside a fresh shell crater.

The fighting in the countryside between the Donbas towns, in contrast, has been a war of small steps that Ukrainian forces say are mostly in their favor. Soldiers are still dying every day, but Russia’s once-punishing artillery barrages targeting front lines have petered out, compared to their earlier furious pace.

On a recent, sweltering summer morning, Sgt. Serhiy Tyshchenko walked a warren of trenches dug into a tree line, tracing his troops’ slow advance on a southern rim of the eastern front line.

The focal point of the war has moved elsewhere, he said. “Our position is not a priority for us or for them,” he said.

He advanced by sending troops crawling on their stomachs at night among the roots and leaves of acacia trees, along three parallel tree lines beside wheat fields. Each time, they dug new trenches, gradually pushing back the Russians.

When he reached the former Russian line, a panorama of garbage emerged: Water bottles, empty cans of fish, plastic bags and discarded ammunition boxes lay everywhere. Flies buzzed about.

“They don’t care” said Sergeant Tyshchenko, “because it’s not their country.”

Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting from Sloviansk and Bakhmut, Ukraine, Maria Varenikova from Kyiv, Ukraine, Emma Bubola from London, Anastasia Kuznietsova from Mantua, Italy, and Alan Yuhas from New York.

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Europe steps up support for Ukraine as Russia presses offensive

  • Ukraine EU candidacy signals major shift in European geopolitics
  • ‘Europe can create a new history of freedom’ Zelenskiy says
  • Battle for Sievierodonetsk grinds on
  • Ukraine claims strike on Russian tugboat

BRUSSELS/KYIV, Ukraine, June 17 (Reuters) – The European Union gave its blessing on Friday for Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova to become candidates to join, in the most dramatic geopolitical shift to result from Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine applied to join the EU just four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Four days later, so did Moldova and Georgia – smaller ex-Soviet states also contending with separatist regions occupied by Russian troops.

“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” the EU’s executive Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels. She made the announcement wearing Ukrainian colours, a yellow blazer over a blue shirt.

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President Voloymyr Zelenskiy thanked von der Leyen and EU member states on Twitter for a decision he called “the first step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our victory closer”.

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu hailed a “strong signal of support for Moldova & our citizens!” and said she counted on the support of EU member states.

“We’re committed to working hard,” she said on Twitter.

While recommending candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission held off for Georgia, which it said must meet more conditions first.

Von der Leyen said Georgia has a strong application but had to come together politically. A senior diplomat close to the process cited setbacks in reforms there.

Leaders of EU countries are expected to endorse the decision at a summit next week. The leaders of the three biggest – Germany, France and Italy – had signalled their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv, along with the president of Romania.

“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Germany’s Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Ukraine and Moldova will still face a lengthy process to achieve the standards required for membership, and there are other candidates in the waiting room. Nor is membership guaranteed – talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, officially a candidate since 1999.

But launching the candidacy process, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just months ago, amounts to a shift on par with the decision in the 1990s to welcome the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

“Precisely because of the bravery of the Ukrainians, Europe can create a new history of freedom, and finally remove the grey zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU’s largest country by area and its fifth most populous. All three hopefuls are far poorer than any existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the poorest, Bulgaria.

All have recent histories of volatile politics, domestic unrest, entrenched organised crime, and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow’s troops.

PORT BLOCKADE

President Vladimir Putin ordered his “special military operation” officially to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. One of his main objectives was to halt the expansion of Western institutions which he called a threat to Russia.

But the war, which has killed thousands of people, destroyed whole cities and set millions to flight, has had the opposite effect. Finland and Sweden have applied to join the NATO military alliance, and the EU has opened its arms to the east.

Within Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to storm the capital in March, but have since refocused on seizing more territory in the east.

The nearly four-month-old war has entered a punishing attritional phase, with Russian forces relying on their massive advantage in artillery firepower to blast their way into Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out in Sievierodonetsk, site of the worst fighting of recent weeks, on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. It was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians who are trapped inside a chemical plant, the regional governor said.

In the surrounding Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies, Ukrainian forces are mainly defending the river’s opposite bank.

Near the frontline in the ruins of the small city of Marinka, Ukrainian police made their way into a cellar searching for anyone who wanted help to evacuate. A group of mainly elderly residents huddled on mattresses in candlelight.

“There’s space down here, you could join us,” joked one man as the officers came in. A woman named Nina sighed in the darkness: “There is nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere to go. All the houses have been burnt out. Where can we go?”

In the south, Ukraine has mounted a counter-offensive, claiming to have made inroads into the biggest swath still held by Russia of the territory it seized in the invasion. There have been few reports from the frontline to confirm the situation in that area.

Ukraine claimed its forces had struck a Russian tugboat bringing soldiers, weapons and ammunition to Russian-occupied Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost.

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Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar in Marinka and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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What Happened on Day 97 of the War in Ukraine

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — The volunteers listened patiently to the pensioner and stuffed a frozen chicken into her shopping bag.

Olena Tyvaniuk, 70, a slight woman with a stoop, explained tearfully that she needed more than food. She needed drugs. “I have a son, he is 48, he is a paranoid schizophrenic,” she said. “I need medication for him.”

As the towns and cities of eastern Ukraine empty out in the face of the Russian offensive, some residents are choosing to stay on. Like Ms. Tyvaniuk, some are trapped by medical imperatives. Or they are too poor to leave. Or, disillusioned by the longstanding corruption of Ukrainian officials, they think things can’t be worse under the Russians.

Bakhmut, just 10 miles from the front, is largely deserted. There are few cars on the streets except for military vehicles; shops and banks are boarded up. Only one or two cafes and supermarkets are still open.

The only pharmacy is at the hospital where wounded soldiers are brought in from the front. Recently, bloodstained stretchers were propped up against a wall where a wounded soldier, his face bloody and swollen, swathed in bandages, smoked a cigarette with friends.

Yet in the middle of war, even as artillery booms not far away, civilians still walk by in the street, sometimes even with a child in tow.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Ms. Tyvaniuk said her son, who barely leaves his room, was refusing to leave. His medication was running out and the only pharmacy open in the town did not stock the medicine he needed, she said. He had enough left for only four days and was down to cutting slices from his remaining tablets.

“He does not understand the whole situation,” she said. “He does not even know his own address. I cannot leave him, and I never will leave him.”

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on civilians to leave eastern Ukraine as Russia has turned the full strength of its forces on seizing the region. But a portion of the population stubbornly refuses to go.

“Those who wanted to go have already gone,” said Ruslan, 42, a volunteer with the Union of Ukrainian Churches who drives people to shelters in western Ukraine. He said his group had evacuated 1,000 people from the Bakhmut area over the past month.

Yet of 20 people who had requested evacuation with his organization on Saturday, only nine took up the offer, he said. He had just risked the drive to the frontline town of Siversk to collect people, but came back empty. “No one wants to go,” he said.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

He asked that only his first name be published for fear of retribution from the Russian side.

Most of those remaining are the poor, the old and the infirm, volunteers and health workers said.

“We mostly see the elderly people seeking all kinds of support,” said Islam Alaraj, program manager for psychosocial support in Ukraine for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “They are the most vulnerable and they have plenty of health issues, and they have added psychological issues above that.”

For the most part, Ukrainian health facilities around the country, including psychiatric facilities, are still functional and receiving outside support, Ms. Alaraj said. But as fighting shifts, reaching those in need is becoming more difficult.

“This context is changing in a very fast way,” she said, “and we don’t know all locations and we don’t have access to all locations.”

Many residents interviewed said they could not afford to rent an apartment elsewhere, and feared losing everything they owned if they abandoned their homes. They also voiced distrust of promises of assistance from aid groups or the government.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

“They say they do not have money, and that people will deceive them when they get there,” Ruslan said.

“Some of them are waiting for the Russians,” he added. “Let’s face it, there are those who just sit in their basements and wait for someone to bring them humanitarian aid. And for them it does not matter who passes them a package of aid, Russia or Ukraine.”

Police officers serving until last week in the town of Sievierodonetsk said they saw the mood shifting as Russian forces were poised on the edge of the city. They abandoned a last evacuation when residents asked for extra guarantees.

“We don’t force anyone,” Chief Oleh Hryhorov of the regional police said. “Some sympathize with the other side.”

Russian troops were flying drones over the town to gather information on Ukrainian positions and some residents were acting as informers for Russia, he said. Already anticipating a Russian takeover, some residents were reluctant to talk to foreign journalists, he said.

In the town of Siversk, north of Bakhmut and close to the front line, a storekeeper suddenly shooed away customers and closed her doors in the middle of the morning for “stocktaking.” A volunteer ferrying medicines to families by bicycle said people were fearful of every interaction.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Several Ukrainians interviewed expressed bitter disaffection with their government. Many said they could barely survive on their pension, which amounts to as little as $70 a month.

Lyudmila Krilyshkina, 71, displaced after her home burned down in a rocket attack, wept as she complained that she was not able to draw her pension in Bakhmut. Since the shops were taking only cash, she could not buy food for herself and her parents, she said.

“They need to think of the people,” she said. “We understand there is a war but how are we supposed to survive?”

Another woman waiting to be evacuated complained that only voluntary organizations were helping the people, and that government officials were doing nothing. She asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

Disillusionment with previous corrupt governments helped propel President Volodymyr Zelensky to power in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, popular support for him has soared as the country has overwhelmingly backed his determination to fight. Yet there remains a deep, latent cynicism for the government and officials in Ukraine.

Ms. Tvyaniuk said she had spent 12 years fighting for justice after a corrupt court ruled against her and her daughter. Her daughter had successfully sued her former husband for alimony and child care payments but the police never enforced the court order and a judge helped falsify documents to overturn the ruling.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

“The police protected the courts and the courts protected the police,” she said. “This happened under Ukrainian rule, and now I don’t know if it would be better under Russian rule or Ukrainian.”

“We don’t know what to expect,” said Ihor, 44, an unemployed laborer sitting outside his apartment block. But he said he and his partner, Olha, 60, would stay and live under Russian rule if its troops seized Bakhmut, adding, “What else is there?”

He complained that the Ukrainian leaders were corrupt and had robbed the country and its workers. “They stole and put everything in their pockets,” he said. “And if Russia takes over, that will be finished.”

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The World Tries to Move Beyond Covid. China May Stand in the Way.

As the rest of the world learns to live with Covid-19, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants his country to keep striving to live without it — no matter the cost.

China won a battle against its first outbreak in Wuhan, Mr. Xi said last week, and “we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai,” he added, referring to the epicenter of the current outbreak in China.

summarized it as “zero movement, zero G.D.P.” Multinational companies have grown wary of further investments in the country.

For more than two years, China kept its Covid numbers enviably low by doggedly reacting to signs of an outbreak with testing and snap lockdowns. The success allowed the Communist Party to boast that it had prioritized life over death in the pandemic, unlike Western democracies where deaths from the virus soared.

More transmissible variants like Omicron threaten to dent that success, posing a dilemma for Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Harsher lockdowns have been imposed to keep infections from spreading, stifling economic activity and threatening millions of jobs. Chinese citizens have grown restless, pushing back against being forced to stay home or to move into grim, government-run isolation facilities.

politically important year for Mr. Xi, China’s censors have moved quickly to muffle calls for a change in course on Covid-19. The head of the World Health Organization, whose recommendations China once held up as a model, was silenced this week when he called on the country to rethink its strategy.

Photographs and references to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., were promptly scrubbed from the Chinese internet after the statement. The foreign ministry responded by calling Mr. Tedros’s remarks “irresponsible,” and accusing the W.H.O. of not having a “proper understanding of the facts.”

China’s state-controlled media has also glossed over the draconian measures officials have deployed to deal with outbreaks. This week, as some authorities in Shanghai erected new fences around quarantine zones, boarded up more homes and asked residents not to leave their apartments, state media painted a picture of a city slowly returning to normal.

One article described the “hustle and bustle of city life” returning, while another focused on statistics for how many stores had reopened.

has not happened. Several Chinese companies are in the testing phase of a homegrown mRNA option, and China also recently approved for emergency use a Covid-19 antiviral pill made by Pfizer called Paxlovid.

Administering three vaccine shots, using antiviral therapies and offering more effective vaccines could help China find a path out of zero Covid, Mr. Ajelli said.

disappointing winter wheat harvest in June could drive food prices — already high because of the war in Ukraine and bad weather in Asia and the United States — further up, compounding hunger in the world’s poorest countries.

By one estimate, nearly 400 million people in 45 cities have been under some form of lockdown in China in the past month, accounting for $7.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product. Economists are concerned that the lockdowns will have a major impact on growth; one economist has warned that if lockdown measures remain in place for another month, China could enter into a recession.

European and American multinational companies have said they are discussing ways to shift some of their operations out of China. Big companies that increasingly depend on China’s consumer market for growth are also sounding the alarm. Apple said it could see a $4 billion to $8 billion hit to its sales because of the lockdowns.

struggle to find and keep jobs during lockdowns.

Even as daily virus cases in Shanghai are steadily dropping, authorities have tightened measures in recent days following Mr. Xi’s call last week to double down. Officials also began to force entire residential buildings into government isolation if just one resident tested positive.

The new measures are harsher than those early on in the pandemic and have been met with pockets of unrest, previously rare in China where citizens have mostly supported the country’s pandemic policies.

In one video widely circulated online before it was taken down by censors, an exasperated woman shouts as officials in white hazmat suits smash her door down to take her away to an isolation facility. She protests and asks them to give her evidence that she has tested positive. Eventually she takes her phone to call the police.

“If you called the police,” one of the men replies, “I’d still be the one coming.”

Isabelle Qian contributed reporting, and Claire Fu contributed research.

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Ukraine says all women, children now evacuated from Mariupol steel mill

  • Women, children and elderly evacuated, deputy PM says
  • Not clear if other civilians remain
  • Russian forces try to storm Azovstal, Ukraine military says
  • CIA director says Putin ‘doubling down’ on conflict
  • WHO documents 200 attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine

KYIV, May 7 (Reuters) – All women, children and elderly civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said on Saturday, after a week-long effort rescued hundreds of people during an ongoing Russian assault at the plant.

“This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

The Soviet-era steel mill, the last holdout in Mariupol for Ukrainian forces, has become a symbol of resistance to the Russian effort to capture swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine in the 10-week-old war.

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Under heavy bombardment, fighters and civilians have been trapped for weeks in deep bunkers and tunnels criss-crossing the site, with little food, water or medicine.

Russian forces backed by tanks and artillery tried again on Saturday to storm Azovstal, seeking to dislodge the last Ukrainian defenders in the strategic port city on the Azov Sea, Ukraine’s military command said.

Weeks of Russian bombardment have left Mariupol in ruins. The steel mill has been largely destroyed. During pauses in fighting, evacuations of civilians began last weekend, brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late night address that more than 300 civilians had been rescued from the plant. Authorities would now focus on evacuating the wounded and medics, and helping residents elsewhere in Mariupol and surrounding settlements to safety, he said.

Russian-backed separatists have also reported a total of 176 civilians evacuated from the plant. It was not clear if civilian men were still there.

Ukrainian fighters in the plant have vowed not to surrender. It was unclear how many remained, and Ukrainian officials fear Russian forces want to wipe them out by Monday, when Moscow commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. read more

In Washington, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said Russian President Vladimir Putin is convinced “doubling down” on the conflict will improve the outcome for Russia.

“He’s in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose,” Burns said at a Financial Times event.

Putin declared victory in Mariupol on April 21, ordered the plant sealed off and called for Ukrainian forces inside to disarm. Russia later resumed its assault. read more

Moscow calls its actions since Feb. 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war.

In Kyiv on Saturday, the World Health Organization said it had documented 200 attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, the latest allegations of war crimes by Russian forces. Russia has denied attacking civilian targets. read more

Mariupol, which lies between the Crimean Peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014 and parts of eastern Ukraine taken by Russia-backed separatists that year, is key to linking the two Russian-held territories and blocking Ukrainian exports.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine aimed to establish full control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and maintain the land corridor between these territories and Crimea.

Ukrainian armed forces fighting in the two eastern regions controlled by Russian-speaking separatists said in a Facebook post they fought off nine enemy attacks on Saturday, destroying 19 tanks and 24 other armoured vehicles as well as downing a helicopter.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russia dropped a bomb on a school in the village of Bilohorivka, where about 90 people were sheltering. Around 30 have been rescued so far, he said on Facebook.

The Russian defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the alleged bombing.

Zelenskiy in his address expressed outrage over Russian shelling overnight that destroyed a museum dedicated to the 18th century philosopher and poet Hryhoriy Skovoroda in the village of Skovorodynivka near Kharkiv. read more

Other Russian attacks near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city, blew up three road bridges to slow counter-offensive actions, the Ukrainian military’s general staff said.

Russia’s defence ministry said it destroyed a large stockpile of military equipment from the United States and European countries near the Bohodukhiv railway station in the Kharkiv region.

Russian forces hit 18 Ukrainian military facilities overnight, including three ammunition depots in Dachne, near the southern port city of Odesa, the ministry said.

Reuters could not independently verify either side’s statements about battlefield events.

Russia’s lower house of parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin accused Washington of coordinating military operations in Ukraine, which he said amounted to direct U.S. involvement in military action against Russia. read more

U.S. officials have said the United States has provided intelligence to Ukraine to help counter the Russian assault, but have denied this intelligence includes precise targeting data.

Washington and European members of the transatlantic NATO alliance have supplied Kyiv with heavy weapons, but say they will not take part in the fighting.

A senior Russian commander said last month Russia planned to take full control of southern Ukraine to improve Russian access to Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova.

Pro-Russian separatists in Moldova said Transdniestria was hit four times by suspected drones overnight near the Ukrainian border. read more

Ukraine has repeatedly denied any blame for the incidents, saying it believes Russia is staging the attacks to provoke war. Moscow, too, has denied blame. read more

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Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Reuters bureaus; additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by William Maclean, Frank Jack Daniel and Simon Lewis
Editing by William Mallard, Frances Kerry and David Gregorio

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Live Updates: Taking on Russia With West’s Arms, Ukraine Goes on Offense

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.

Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

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.

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

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.

Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

“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.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

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.

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Ukraine Live Updates: Seeing a Stalled Russia, West Adds Support and Arms for Ukraine

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Some flashed bright smiles and others bent over in heaving sobs, sharing the end of their hellish subterranean ordeal. Here, at last, were ordinary things they thought they might not live to see again: sunlight, enough food and escape from incessant Russian shelling.

On a fleet of city buses, flanked by white United Nations and Red Cross vehicles, nearly 130 women, children and elderly people on Tuesday reached the relative safety of Ukrainian-controlled territory, after weeks huddled in the belly of Mariupol’s sprawling steelworks.

They had sheltered in the near-darkness of underground bunkers, with little food or water as explosives of all shapes and sizes rained down day and night, slowly chipping away the steel and concrete overhead that was their only protection.

“For some reason I remember Easter, Easter Day,” said Inna Papush, who spent 58 days underground with her daughter, Dasha, 17. “We thought it would be a holy day and they would take a break,” she said of the Russian forces.

“But the shelling became even heavier,” Dasha said, completing her mother’s thought.

Leaders of the United States and Europe pressed harder on Tuesday to arm Ukraine, hinder the Kremlin and strengthen the NATO alliance — President Biden visited a factory that makes antitank missiles that have been vital to the Ukrainian cause — even as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia warned that they were only making matters worse.

And in the parking lot of the Epicenter shopping complex in Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine, evacuees from Mariupol stepped from buses, blinking in the sunshine. They were greeted by a parade of aid workers offering tea and snacks and a less-than-quiet place to rest in a large white tent buzzing with journalists, psychologists and the occasional politician. Children were given candy, while an air raid siren sounded briefly, ignored by all.

Their evacuation was a rare but limited victory for diplomacy, and an unusual concession to human dignity by Russian forces who have inflicted death and misery upon civilian populations across a broad swath of Ukraine since the war began on Feb. 24.

Negotiators from the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross brokered a deal with the Russians that allowed for the civilians to escape the Azovstal steel plant, the sprawling complex that had been their refuge. But it came only after more than two months of intense attacks that have turned Mariupol, once a vivacious port city, into a ruin of bomb-blasted buildings and corpse-strewn streets. In addition to 127 evacuees who fled to Zaporizhzhia, about 30 escaped the plant but chose to remain in Mariupol, according to The Associated Press.

In the days leading up to a cease-fire that allowed the civilians to escape, Russian forces escalated their attacks on the plant, causing cave-ins that hampered rescue efforts and killing and injuring unknown numbers, according to Ukrainian officials and troops who are still there.

“I was in Azovstal for two and a half months and they slammed us from all sides,” said Olga Savina, an elderly woman, as she emerged from a white city bus provided by the Zaporizhzhia authorities for the evacuation.

As she spoke, she repeatedly cast her gaze down to the pavement, explaining that the sun burned her eyes after so many days underground.

From the evacuees a picture began to emerge of life in Azovstal. The steel mill was like a small city, with roads and buildings dating to the post-World War II era, when any big Soviet construction project included reinforced bomb shelters equipped with everything needed for long-term survival.

Evacuees described bunkers, most housing 30 to 50 people, with kitchens, bathhouses and sleeping areas. The shelters were spread out around the grounds of the complex, so there was little contact between groups hiding in different places.

There in the dark, a semblance of day-to-day life took shape.

“We got used to it being very dark. We had to economize food,” said Dasha Papush. “The soldiers brought us what they could: water, food, oatmeal.”

“We didn’t eat like we did at home,” she added.

Many of the evacuees had been underground since the earliest days of the war. For a woman named Anna, 29, who placated her young son, Ivan, with a lollipop, it was 57 days. While there, she was separated from her husband, a fighter in the National Guard, by a brisk, 15-minute walk through the factory ruins, though visits were rare because of the shelling and constant fighting.

Leaving the safety of the underground shelter was treacherous, but necessary for survival.

“The guys who are with us went out under fire and tried to find us a generator and fuel, so that we had electricity to charge our flashlights,” she said. “We of course had to search for water.”

For Sergei Tsybulchenko, 60, the reason to emerge was firewood. Scattered around the grounds of the factory were shipping palettes that he and a few men would collect and break up to fuel the cooking fire he and his fellow inmates had made in a part of their bunker. He and the 50 or so others crammed into his bunker would gather to prepare and share one meal a day, he explained — usually a mix of macaroni, oatmeal and canned meat, cooked all together in a large pot.

Mr. Tsybulchenko said the fire had to be kept low, for fear that it could be detected by thermal sensors on Russian jets.

“It was just always, boom, boom, boom, boom,” he said. “It was a real strain on the brain.”

Under constant bombardment, he said, the shelter began to disintegrate, with a portion of it collapsing.

Over the weekend, for the first time in weeks, it stopped.

In Mr. Tsybulchenko’s shelter, three soldiers with the Azov regiment, a Ukrainian military unit whose soldiers make up the bulk of those fighting at Azovstal, asked for anyone suffering from any illnesses to come forward. Mr. Tsybulchenko’s wife, Nelya, who has asthma, raised her hand. The couple walked out of the shelter into the sunlight with their daughter, her husband and a small dog.

Only 11 people from their bunker were chosen to leave, leaving some 40 others behind. Those who remained included a mother with her two children, who Mr. Tsybulchenko said was scared to leave because her husband was a high-ranking officer fighting at the plant.

“She was worried that if they found out, she would end up in a prison camp together with the children,” he said.

The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, said in a televised interview on Tuesday that more than 200 civilians were still hiding at the plant, and that more than 100,000 people remained scattered about the city. Inside Azovstal, supplies of food, water and medicines have dwindled to critical levels.

The Russians resumed shelling the plant almost immediately after international negotiators departed with evacuees, according to soldiers there. On Tuesday, Russian forces attempted to storm the complex after pummeling it with planes, tanks and artillery, Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment at the plant, said in a statement on Telegram. The regiment released video showing the bodies of two women, who it said were killed in the renewed attack.

“We will do everything possible to repel this assault,” Captain Palamar said. “However, we call for immediate action to evacuate civilians from the plant’s grounds.”

It took Mr. Tsybulchenko and his family nearly two hours just to make it out of the complex. An elderly man who was with them had to be carried over twisted equipment, through massive craters and around unexploded ordinance.

Once outside, the evacuees were handed over to Russian troops and eventually put on buses for what would become a three-day, roundabout journey through dozens of checkpoints, where Russian soldiers fingerprinted and photographed them and interrogated them about the locations of Ukrainian fighters still at the plant.

At one point on the journey, Mr. Tsybulchenko looked off in the distance and saw the remains of Mariupol, the city of his birth. The apartment that his grandfather had received from the Soviet authorities in the 1960s and where he had lived since he was 3 years old was gone. On the horizon, he could make out the jagged shapes of the steel factory.

“A black smoke hung over Azovstal,” he said.

Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from Krakow, Poland.

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Live Updates: Biden Tells Xi There Would Be Consequences to Helping Russia

KYIV, Ukraine — A tall woman with blonde and pink hair and a small dachshund stood out among the crowd of police officers and volunteers at the checkpoint on the edge of Kyiv. She looked as if she were out for a stroll, but she had just survived a dangerous evacuation under mortar fire.

The woman, Sasha Myhova, 21, and her boyfriend, Stas Burykov, 19, were evacuated Friday from their home in Irpin, the northwestern suburb that has become one of the most fiercely contested areas in the three weeks of fighting since Russia’s invading troops advanced toward the capital and Ukrainian troops blocked their way.

“It was dangerous,” she said. “They were bombing as we drove.”

The heavy boom of artillery sounded again as she spoke. “Shells were landing right in our yard,” she said, pulling out a piece of metal shrapnel she had kept.

As the war in Ukraine settles into its fourth week, the suburbs on the edge of Kyiv have become important if unlikely front lines of the war, where the Russian and Ukrainian forces are stuck in a savage give-and-take at one of the gateways to the capital, in positions that have not really moved.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Blocked and badly mauled, Russian forces have nevertheless established positions around three sides of the capital. Ukrainian forces have successfully stalled them, and on Wednesday mounted a series of coordinated counterattacks to challenge those positions.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine hailed the defense of Kyiv, led by the commander of land forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, saying that Ukrainian forces had regained control of 30 settlements around the city in the counterattack. “The enemy suffered significant losses and was driven away from the capital,” he said.

Yet the mortar fire and gunfire was so heavy in Irpin that the Ukrainians stopped attempting further evacuations after the one that included Ms. Myhova. The Ukrainian counterattack seems to have been met by a ferocious response from Russian forces. Residents and volunteers helping evacuate them said Russian artillery fire and even machine gun fire had intensified over the last few days.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

One man, Vitaliy Kalman, was standing beside his suitcase hoping for a lull in the fighting. He said he had tried to go back into the district to retrieve some clothes from his apartment but came under mortar fire just beyond the ruined bridge that marks the entrance into Irpin. The bridge was destroyed by Ukrainian troops to forestall advancement by Russian troops in the first days of the war.

“They are very close,” he said of the Russians. “I saw the shell explode just near my house, and I ran back here with the evacuation team.”

A volunteer member of the Territorial Defense Forces described the street fighting in Irpin as an all-out guerrilla war. On the attacking side are the Russian troops, which Western military analysts say are likely elite airborne Special Forces units.

Defending against them are local volunteers, many of whom had just been handed rifles a few days before the Russians arrived in their town, alongside veteran militia fighters and uniformed troops.

Street fighting had been raging for days, according to soldiers interviewed on the edge of the town on Saturday. As of then, Russians controlled one of the three main thoroughfares, one was contested and the third was under tenuous Ukrainian control.

The locals have been slipping out at night and shooting at Russian positions, said the volunteer, who asked only to be identified by his nickname, Spotter, for security reasons. “It’s understood that they will be taking no prisoners,” he said of the firefights. “These are people who have weapons and know the local area perfectly.”

A doctor at a nearby hospital said it had received 25 wounded soldiers on Wednesday on the first day of the counterattack.

Ms. Myhova said Russian troops had twice entered her home in recent days. First, two soldiers who seemed to be scouts came into the yard, then three days ago, just before the Ukrainian counterattack, 10 Russian soldiers entered the house.

“They searched everything,” she said. “They said they had picked up a telephone signal from the house.”

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The soldiers warned the family that if they informed anyone about the location of the Russian troops, they would shoot them. “They pointed their guns at us,” she said. “They said, ‘We can shoot you because we know your location.’”

When Mr. Burykov’s 70-year-old grandfather, the owner of the house, began to remonstrate with them, the Russian soldiers told them that they were securing control over what was Russian land, citing the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, which Russia claims as its ancestral state.

“My grandfather tried to argue,” Mr. Burykov said. “He said, ‘It’s rubbish that it’s your land. I was born here. Go away.’”

On Wednesday, the day Ukraine mounted its counter-strikes, residents said the shelling worsened dramatically. There were four explosions around the house that shook the doors, and the sound of gunfire from assault rifles in the yard, Ms. Myhova said.

When they learned that volunteers were evacuating an elderly woman nearby, the couple, along with a sister of Mr. Burykov, asked to get out. But Mr. Burykov’s parents, grandfather and other siblings stayed behind.

“They want to go when there is a green corridor,” Ms. Myhova said, referring to a humanitarian evacuation with guarantees of safety. “But there will not be any,” she said, “since even if one is agreed, they shoot at the cars.”

The Ukrainian army and volunteers evacuated about 150 residents from Irpin on Thursday, many of them pensioners who were struggling to survive after the fighting disrupted water, gas and electricity.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

“They are out of strength,” said a volunteer paramedic, Oleh Lutsenko, 32, who was on duty at the entrance to Irpin Thursday. He treated three wounded soldiers, one with severe wounds from artillery fire, among the evacuees, and his team also brought out the bodies of three dead civilians — all grandmothers, as he called them. “Maybe they died from hunger,” he said.

As his team pulled out just before 5 p.m., they came under machine gun fire, he said. Despite two days of counterattack, they were still in range of Russian guns.

While Ukrainian troops had success in stalling the Russian advance as it lumbered down the main highways toward Kyiv, Russian units have continued pushing south on the eastern and western flanks of the capital in an attempt to encircle it, military analysts have said.

The long columns of tanks that had backed up on highways to the north of Irpin have now fanned out into villages and forests outside of Kyiv, according to the volunteer, Spotter, who was interviewed at a gas station in a western district of the capital.

In his mid 50s, with a salt and pepper beard, he carried a walkie-talkie and said he ran an ad hoc intelligence unit, collecting information on the Russians’ positions in the suburbs and outlying villages.

“They are hiding tanks in villages between houses,” he said, adding that soldiers were also quartering in homes to avoid the cold.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Their dispersal was complicating the Ukrainian counterattack, since the Russian armor was interspersed in villages, where civilians lived, even if most people have fled the area.

After two major ambushes on Russian positions outside Kyiv, in the suburban towns of Bucha and Brovary, which together left dozens of charred tanks on main roads, the armored vehicles are now avoiding traveling in columns, he said.

“They are now digging in,” Spotter said of Russian soldiers, as Ukraine’s artillery has been pounding them from the edge of Kyiv. “They didn’t expect this resistance.”

Volunteers guarding the checkpoint on the main western highway that heads out of Kyiv to the city of Zhytomyr said Russian troops had seized control of the road and vehicles could no longer safely use the highway except to a nearby settlement of Chaika.

It was unclear, Spotter said, how far south Russian troops had moved after crossing the Zhytomyr highway, though it appeared the intention of the Russian forces was to keep encircling the capital and eventually seal off access routes.

The advance was now stalled. “They are regrouping,” he said.

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Live Updates: Ukraine and Russia Agree to Civilian ‘Corridors’ as Fighting Rages

ODESSA, Ukraine — After capturing the strategic city of Kherson, Russian forces pushed west on Thursday, moving along the southern Black Sea coast in the direction of Odessa. They continued to lay siege to the critical port city of Mariupol in Ukraine’s east, though there was no indication that they had captured it.

After eight days of war, Russian troops deployed in Ukraine’s southern theater finally appeared to be building some momentum. But their progress has been far slower than military analysts would have expected given their massive advantages over the Ukrainian military.

For eight years, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has been building what amounts to a sprawling military staging area in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Forces stationed there should have been well equipped to charge out of their bases and seize swaths of southern Ukrainian territory the moment the order was given to invade. Russia’s near naval monopoly in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov should have provided additional fire power to assist ground troops.

Instead, their advancement has been sluggish, beset by logistical issues and a seeming inability of commanders to coordinate disparate military forces, which if combined effectively should have easily overwhelmed Ukraine’s defenses.

“I thought along the Black Sea coast was where they would have their best success immediately because of the huge advantage of having this bridgehead in Crimea,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe.

Mariupol continued to hold out on Thursday despite a withering Russian bombardment that cut power, water and heat to the city. But the mayor, Vadym Boichenko, painted a grim picture of the Russian siege.

“Mariupol is still being shelled,” he said in a statement on Facebook. “The women, kids and elderly people are suffering.”

Despite pounding Russian artillery strikes in Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, there has been very little advancement in recent days among troops stationed in the country’s north.

In the south, the campaign to seize the southern coastline was given a boost this week with the capture of Kherson, a city of 300,000 people that is an important ship building center. From there, Russian troops have been on the move in the direction of Mykolaiv, another port city on the Black Sea.

On Thursday, Mykolaiv’s mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, said roughly 800 Russian vehicles, including a column of grad rocket launchers, was headed toward the city, which has one of Ukraine’s three largest ports, from north, east and south. As of Thursday morning, there had been no shelling inside the city. But Ukrainian forces on the city perimeter have been fired on by long-range rockets, forcing them to move positions constantly, Mr. Senkevych said.

“The city is ready for war,” Mr. Senkevych said.

But charging further down the coastline could put Russian forces in danger of stretching themselves too thinly, said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute based in Arlington, Va. Already, the forces in Ukraine’s south and elsewhere appear in some instances to have outpaced logistical units, forcing them to stop and wait for fuel and other supplies.

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How the Kremlin Is Militarizing Russian Society

MOSCOW — Stepping onto a podium in heavy boots and military fatigues at a ceremony outside Moscow, six teenagers accepted awards for an increasingly important discipline in Russia: patriotism.

For days, students from around the country had competed in activities like map-reading, shooting and history quizzes. The contest was funded in part by the Kremlin, which has been making “military patriotic” education a priority.

“Parents and children understand that this aggressive shell around us, it is tightening, it is hardening,” said Svyatoslav Omelchenko, a special forces veteran of the K.G.B. who founded Vympel, the group running the event. “We are doing all we can to make sure that children are aware of that and to get them ready to go and serve.”

Over the past eight years, the Russian government has promoted the idea that the motherland is surrounded by enemies, filtering the concept through national institutions like schools, the military, the news media and the Orthodox Church. It has even raised the possibility that the country might again have to defend itself as it did against the Nazis in World War II.

Russia masses troops on the Ukrainian border, spurring Western fears of an impending invasion, the steady militarization of Russian society under President Vladimir V. Putin suddenly looms large, and appears to have inured many to the idea that a fight could be coming.

shared the Nobel Peace Prize this year, said in his acceptance speech in Oslo this month. “People are getting used to the thought of its permissibility.”

Speaking to Russian military leaders on Tuesday, Mr. Putin insisted that Russia did not want bloodshed, but was prepared to respond with “military-technical measures” to what he described as the West’s aggressive behavior in the region.

Youth Army. Adults get their inculcation from state television, where political shows — one is called “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin.” — drive home the narrative of a fascist coup in Ukraine and a West bent on Russia’s destruction.

And all are united by the near-sacred memory of Soviet victory in World War II — one that the state has seized upon to shape an identity of a triumphal Russia that must be ready to take up arms once more.

Aleksei Levinson, the head of sociocultural research at the Levada Center, an independent Moscow pollster, calls the trend the “militarization of the consciousness” of Russians. In the center’s regular surveys, the army in 2018 became the country’s most trusted institution, surpassing even the president. This year, the share of Russians saying they feared a world war hit the highest level recorded in surveys dating to 1994 — 62 percent.

This does not mean, Mr. Levinson cautioned, that Russians would welcome a bloody territorial conquest of Ukraine. But it does mean, he said, that many have been conditioned to accept that Russia is locked in an existential rivalry with other powers in which the use of force is a possibility.

Celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II — referred to as the Great Patriotic War in Russia — has played the most important role in that conditioning. Rather than promoting only a culture of remembrance of Soviet heroism and 27 million lives lost, the Kremlin applies the World War II narrative to the present day, positioning Russia as once again threatened by enemies bent on its destruction.

the grand Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces opened last year. Its exterior is army green and its floors are made from weapons and tanks seized from the German Wehrmacht. Arched stained glass windows feature insignia and medals.

On a recent Sunday, the church and its accompanying museum and park were full of visitors. A group of fifth graders from the Suvorov Military School in Tver, wearing their uniforms, filed out in two lines before marching to the museum. Their instructor said it was fundamentally important for the students, in their first year of military school, to learn about their predecessors.

“We’re doing a bit of propaganda, too,” the section leader quipped, declining to give his name.

Beyond the church grounds, visitors walked among snow-covered trenches in a simulated front line. Further afield, under the towering dome of the church, children could ride around a go-kart like track in a miniature replica of a battle tank.

“All children should come here and develop an interest in history from an early age,” said Alina Grengolm, as her 2-year-old son scrambled up an icy tank with his father’s assistance.

In Moscow recently, more than 600 people from across Russia gathered for a government-sponsored forum aimed at promoting patriotism among youth. Sergei Kiriyenko, Mr. Putin’s powerful deputy chief of staff, praised the attendees for doing “sacred work.”

a new phase of the conflict.

In a Levada poll published last week, 39 percent of Russians said war between Russia and Ukraine was either inevitable or very likely. Half said the United States and NATO were to blame for the recent rise in tensions, and no more than 4 percent — across all age groups — said Russia was at fault.

The conviction across society that Russia is not the aggressor reflects a core ideology dating to Soviet times: that the country only fights defensive wars. The government has even earmarked money for movies that explore that theme: In April, the Culture Ministry decreed that “Russia’s historical victories” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission” were among the priority topics for film producers seeking government funding.

“Right now, the idea is being pushed that Russia is a peace-loving country permanently surrounded by enemies,” said Anton Dolin, a Russian film critic. “This is contradicted by some facts, but if you show it at the movies and translate that idea into the time of the Great Patriotic War, we all instantly get a scheme familiar to everyone from childhood.”

On Russian state television, the narrative of a Ukraine controlled by neo-Nazis and used as a staging ground for Western aggression has been a common trope since the pro-Western revolution in Kyiv in 2014. After the revolution, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine’s east and sharpened its messaging about Russia as a “besieged fortress.”

appears to have dissipated amid economic stagnation.

But the Kremlin is doubling down. Its drive to increase “patriotic education” includes funding for groups like Vympel. The “military patriotic” organization has some 100 chapters around the country, and it organized the recent skills competition in the city of Vladimir that ended on Thursday.

Veronika Osipova, 17, from the city of Rostov-on-Don near Ukraine’s border, won the award for best female student. For years, she played the harp, graduating with honors from an elite music school. But in 2015, she started learning how to shoot a machine gun and throw grenades. She resolved to join the Russian military to protect the country against its enemies.

“I follow the example of girls who, under bullets and grenades, went to fight during the Great Patriotic War,” Ms. Osipova said. “They had no choice, but we do have it, and I choose the army.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, Ivan Nechepurenko from Vladimir, Russia, and Valerie Hopkins from Kubinka, Russia. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Moscow.

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