- The Washington Times
Monday, May 2, 2022

A major civilian evacuation from the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol progressed on Monday, although Russia claimed to have pounded more than three dozen locales in eastern Ukraine with missiles and Western European countries inched closer to imposing more sweeping sanctions on Russia’s critical energy sector.

In Washington, the CIA revealed efforts to reach out to high-level Russian officials who may be eager to collaborate out of frustration with President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has faced significant setbacks amid fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces armed with weapons from the U.S. and other NATO countries.

More than 255 of Russia’s invading ground forces have been “rendered combat ineffective,” according to an assessment by the British Defense Ministry. “Some of Russia’s most elite units, including the VDV Airborne Forces, have suffered the highest levels of attrition,” the ministry said.

The Pentagon said the Russian offensive in southern and eastern Ukraine has made “anemic” progress, and the Kremlin was dealing with self-inflicted wounds from the propaganda wars over the Feb. 24 decision to invade. Israel sharply criticized Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said during an interview with an Italian news outlet that Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood.”

Mr. Lavrov was defending Russian claims that it invaded Ukraine to “de-Nazify” the country, even though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and has family members who were killed in the Holocaust.

The Kremlin was facing mounting speculation and unconfirmed reports in Western news outlets that Mr. Putin may be suffering from Parkinson’s disease and possibly thyroid or abdominal cancer. The speculation has spiraled since a Kremlin video last week showed Mr. Putin tightly gripping a table and slouching with what appeared to be a bloated face. A separate clip seemed to show the Russian president’s hand flapping uncontrollably as he prepared to meet an ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

SEE ALSO: Pentagon sees ‘minimal’ progress for Russians in renewed assault

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, reported recently that Mr. Putin is set to undergo cancer surgery, according to an unidentified “Kremlin insider” cited on the popular Telegram channel General SVR. The Daily Mail said General SVR first began reporting that Mr. Putin had abdominal cancer and Parkinson’s 18 months ago.

A report last week by the German outlet Deutsche Welle stressed that the reports were pure speculation. The outlet cited interviews with multiple doctors who had studied the video footage of Mr. Putin and concluded that a wide range of factors could have contributed to the Russian president’s mannerisms and appearance in the footage.

Mariupol evacuation

The first civilians evacuated from the bombed-out steel plant that has become the last stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol slowly made their way toward safety. Others who managed to escape the city described terrifying weeks of bombardment and deprivation.

More than 100 civilians, including elderly women and mothers with small children, left the sprawling, rubble-strewn Azovstal steel mill on Sunday and set out in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles to the northwest, according to authorities and video released by the two sides.

Some of the civilians were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The Russian military said some chose to stay in separatist areas while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas. The Kremlin denies those charges.

As many as 100,000 civilians overall may still be in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000. Russian forces have pounded much of the city to rubble, trapping civilians with little food, water, heat or medicine.

Mariupol, which is situated within Ukraine’s Donbas region, is key to Russia’s campaign in the war-torn country’s east. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops for fighting elsewhere.

Mr. Zelenskyy said he hoped more people would be able to leave Mariupol in an organized evacuation Monday. The city council told residents wanting to leave to gather at a shopping mall to wait for buses.

Mr. Zelenskyy told Greek state television that civilians in the steel plant were afraid to board buses because they thought they might be taken to Russia. He said the United Nations assured him that the civilians would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.

The steel plant evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human costs of the almost 10-week-old war. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other places have broken down. Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-on evacuation routes.

Russia’s shifting focus

U.S. intelligence said it believes Russians alienated by Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be trying to get in touch with U.S. intelligence, and the CIA wants them to go to the darknet.

The agency signaled a push Monday to promote its presence on a part of the internet accessible only through specialized tools that provide more anonymity. The CIA has a darknet site that has the same features as its regular homepage but is accessible only through the Tor internet browser, which has encryption features not available on most regular browsers.

U.S. officials are closely monitoring intelligence reports on Russian military activity inside Ukraine.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on background that a majority of the dozen Russian battalion tactical groups massing near Mariupol in recent weeks have moved north to battlefronts in eastern Ukraine. The official described Russia’s progress in consolidating its forces in the divided Donbas as unimpressive.

“They’ll move in and declare victory, then withdraw their troops only to let the Ukrainians take it back,” the Defense Department official told reporters at the Pentagon. “There’s a lot of back and forth [with] minimal progress at best.”

Morale remains low among a number of the Russian soldiers who have taken part in what they believed would be a quick military campaign, only for it to drag on for months with no clear end in sight, officials said.

“They are still suffering from poor command and control [and] less than ideal logistics,” the Defense Department official said. “They still have not solved all their logistics problems.”

The U.S. official said Russian forces made minimal gains over the weekend, but the Russian Defense Ministry asserted that its forces had struck dozens of Ukrainian military targets in the east.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian warplanes fired precision-guided missiles to hit more than three dozen Ukrainian targets, including concentrations of troops and weapons, over 24 hours. He said a Russian airstrike destroyed an ammunition depot near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region and that a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jet was downed near the eastern town of Slovyansk. The announcements couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Ukraine said its forces, using TB2 drones supplied by Turkey, sank a pair of Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea.

Officials said the action took place off the coast of Snake Island, the scene of a radio exchange that went viral early in the conflict between Ukrainian fighters and a Russian warship, the Moskva, which sank in mid-April after a Ukrainian missile attack.

Ukrainian officials said the patrol boats, known as Raptors, were hit at daybreak. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry released a video that appeared to show the attack in progress. “Bayraktar is working,” said Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, using the local name for the Turkish drone system, which has proved highly effective in the war.

The patrol boats were reportedly being used to evacuate Russian troops from Snake Island when they were attacked by the drones. The boats can reportedly transport up to 20 people with a range of about 100 miles.

Oil sanctions push

In other developments Monday, EU energy ministers met in Brussels to discuss more sanctions against the Kremlin, which could include restrictions on Russian oil. Some Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including Hungary and Slovakia, are wary of taking tough action.

The 27-nation European Union imports about 40% of the gas it consumes from Russia.

While the matter remains under debate, Poland urged its EU partners to unite and impose sweeping measures against the import of Russian oil and natural gas and not to cave to pressure from the Putin government to pay for Russian gas in rubles.

“We will call for immediate sanctions on Russian oil and gas,” said Polish Climate and Environment Minister Anna Moskwa. “This is the next and urgent and absolute step.”

The Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom cut supplies to Bulgaria and Poland last week after Mr. Putin said “unfriendly” countries must start paying in rubles. Gazprom said Bulgaria and Poland failed to pay their bills in April.

With Washington seeking to reopen its embassy in Kyiv, U.S. diplomats made a day trip to Ukraine. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Kristina Kvien attended a news conference in Lviv to highlight the diplomatic return. The diplomats relocated from the embassy to Lviv before the war and pulled out entirely after Russia began its war on Ukraine.

A top-level U.S. congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in Warsaw on Monday to express gratitude to Poland for its humanitarian and other support for Ukraine.

Mrs. Pelosi and a half-dozen other U.S. lawmakers met with President Andrzej Duda and Polish lawmakers. The delegation made a weekend visit to Kyiv, where they met with Mr. Zelenskyy and pledged to support his country until it defeats Russia.

• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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