KYIV/BRUSSELS: The EU proposed its toughest sanctions yet against Russia on Wednesday (May 4), including a phased oil embargo, as Kyiv said Moscow was intensifying its offensive in eastern Ukraine and close Russian ally Belarus announced large-scale army drills.
Nearly 10 weeks into a war that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and flattened cities and towns in eastern and southern Ukraine, Ukraine's defence ministry said Moscow had carried out nearly 50 air strikes on Tuesday alone.
"Russia's military command is attempting to increase the tempo of its offensive operation in eastern Ukraine," Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.
Russia also stepped up attacks on targets in western Ukraine in strikes it said were disrupting Western arms deliveries.
A new convoy of buses began evacuating more civilians from the devastated southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has seen the heaviest fighting of the war so far and where Moscow said remaining Ukrainian forces remained tightly blockaded.
Piling pressure on Russia's already battered US$1.8 trillion economy, the European Commission proposed phasing out supplies of Russian crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of 2022. The price of Brent crude jumped 4 per cent to more than US$109 a barrel after the news.
The plan, if agreed by EU governments, would be a watershed for the world's largest trading bloc, which remains dependent on Russian energy and must find alternative supplies.
"(President Vladimir) Putin must pay a price, a high price, for his brutal aggression," Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, to applause from lawmakers.
Hungary and Slovakia want to be exempted from the ban for now, sources said. An official familiar with the talks said there was no immediate deal, with EU envoys expected to move closer to agreement when they meet again on Thursday.
Von der Leyen also announced sanctions targeting Russia's largest bank Sberbank, two other lenders, three state broadcasters as well as army officers and other individuals accused of war crimes.
The EU has yet to target Russian natural gas, used to heat homes and generate electricity across the bloc.
The Kremlin said Russia was looking at various options in response to the EU plans, adding that the sanctions would greatly increase costs for European citizens.
'WE ARE READY'
On the war front, Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the United States and its NATO allies were continuing to pump weapons into Ukraine and reiterated a warning that Moscow would seek to hit those shipments.
The Russian defence ministry said earlier its forces had disabled six railway stations in Ukraine used to supply Ukrainian forces with Western-made arms in the country's east. It said they also had hit 40 military targets including four depots storing ammunition and artillery weapons.
Ukraine's defence ministry said Russian strategic bombers had fired 18 rockets at targets in Ukraine "with the aim of damaging our country's transport infrastructure".
Russia published what it said was video footage of two Kalibr cruise missiles being launched from the Black Sea and said they had hit unspecified ground targets in Ukraine.
Announcing the surprise military drills, Belarus's defence ministry said they posed no threat to its neighbours, but Ukraine's border service said it could not exclude the possibility that Belarusian forces might join Russia's assault.
"Therefore, we are ready," spokesman Andriy Demchenko said.
Some Russian forces entered Ukraine via Belarus when the invasion began on Feb 24 but Belarusian troops have not so far been involved in what Moscow calls a "special military operation" to disarm Ukraine and defend it from fascists.
Kyiv and its Western backers say Moscow's fascism claim is an absurd pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression that has driven five million Ukrainians to flee abroad.
The Kremlin on Wednesday dismissed speculation that Putin would declare war on Ukraine and decree a national mobilisation on May 9, when Russia commemorates the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Putin is due to deliver a speech and oversee a military parade on Moscow's Red Square.
'WE ARE NOT AFRAID'
The convoy leaving Mariupol, organised by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, was heading for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
He did not say how many buses were in the convoy or whether any more civilians had been evacuated from the vast Azovstal steel works, where the city's last defenders are holding out against Russian forces that have occupied Mariupol.
The first evacuees from Azovstal arrived by bus in Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday after cowering for weeks in bunkers beneath the sprawling Soviet-era steel works.
The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, said heavy fighting was under way at Azovstal on Wednesday and that contact with the Ukrainian fighters there had been lost. More than 30 children are among the civilians there awaiting evacuation, he added.
Russia now claims control of Mariupol, once a city of 400,000 but largely reduced to smoking rubble after weeks of siege and shelling. It is key to Moscow's efforts to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea - vital for its grain and metals exports - and link Russian-controlled territory in the south and east.
Moscow has deployed 22 battalion tactical groups near the eastern Ukrainian town of Izium in a possible drive to capture the cities of Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk in Donbas, British intelligence said. Reuters could not verify the report.
The cities are in the eastern Donbas region - Russia's main target along with Ukraine's southern coastline since Moscow failed to take Kyiv, the capital, in the weeks after it invaded.
Ukraine remains defiant despite the unrelenting assault.
"Russia struggles to advance and suffers terrible losses. Thus the desperate missile terror across Ukraine. But we are not afraid and the world should not be afraid either," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.
"More sanctions on Russia. More heavy weapons for Ukraine. Russia's missile terrorism must be punished."