Russian forces stepped up their attacks in Ukraine on Saturday, advancing into the besieged city of Mariupol in a battle to seize the strategic port, and firing missiles in western Ukraine that destroyed an underground military munitions depot.
As fighting raged across the country, Ukraine was facing a worsening humanitarian crisis as losses mounted on both sides. A senior Ukrainian military official said on Saturday that a Russian rocket attack had killed more than 40 soldiers in a Ukrainian military barracks in the southern city of Mykolaiv on Friday — one of the worst single losses suffered by Ukraine since the conflict erupted last month.
At the city morgue, the bodies of dozens of soldiers in uniform were laid out side by side in a storage area. A morgue employee would not specify the number of dead brought from the site of the attack.
“Many,” the employee said. “I won’t say how many. But many.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Saturday appealed directly to Russians to support a diplomatic resolution to the war, and added a stark warning.
“I want everyone to hear me now, especially in Moscow,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video address hours after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had spoken to tens of thousands of Russians in a rally at Moscow’s largest stadium. “It’s time to meet, time to talk. It is time to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s losses will be so huge that several generations will not be enough to rebound.”
He repeated the Ukrainian military’s claim that 14,000 Russian troops had been killed. The Pentagon estimates that the figure is about half that, still a staggering toll, one that U.S. officials say the Kremlin has sought to cover up.
“Just imagine, 14,000 corpses and tens of thousands of wounded and maimed people at that stadium in Moscow,” Mr. Zelensky said. “There are already so many Russian losses as a result of this invasion. This is the price of war. In a little more than three weeks. The war must end.”
Some of the heaviest fighting on Saturday convulsed Mariupol, the southeast port city that the Russians have besieged since the conflict’s early days. Street battles broke out there as Russian troops moved into the city after weeks of devastating missile barrages turned it into a wasteland of bombed-out buildings. Dead bodies dot the streets and thousands remain trapped with no heat or water.
In an ominous sign of the Russian advance, video shared by the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, purported to show Chechen soldiers, known for their merciless war tactics, inside Mariupol.
“One by one, the areas are cleared, and soon it will reach you,” Mr. Kadyrov said, directly addressing Ukrainians in Mariupol. “Either you voluntarily lay down your arms and accept the punishment you deserve, or we will knock it out of your hands and take punitive measures ourselves.”
The New York Times has not independently verified the video’s contents.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that it was “tightening the noose” around the city. And the Ukrainian government reported that its forces were outgunned, that attempts to provide air support had failed and that it had “temporarily” lost contact with officials in Mariupol.
A city official, Pyotr Andryuschenko, made an alarming statement on Saturday that Russian forces had taken “between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents forcibly across the border to Taganrog,” a city in southwestern Russia. Given the chaos in the city, his claim could not be independently verified, though it was supported by testimony from others who recently fled the city.
If Russian forces should seize Mariupol, it would be one of the few major cities they have taken and would give them control of much of the southern coast of Ukraine. Sounding a note of resignation, an adviser to the Ukrainian president said on Friday, “There is no chance for lifting the siege of Mariupol.”
The Russian advances in Mariupol have hindered frantic efforts to find survivors in the rubble of a theater that was nearly leveled in an attack on Wednesday. About 130 people have been rescued from the theater, according to Ukrainian officials, who estimated that hundreds of people, perhaps as many 1,300, could still be trapped in the basement.
Russian forces struck the theater, even though the word “children” was written in large white letters on the ground at either end of the building.
Even as Russian forces encroached further into Mariupol, the Ukrainian Army claimed to have taken back towns and villages around Kherson, one of the first cities to fall. To the west, the Ukrainian military’s defense of the strategic city of Mykolaiv continued to hold, preventing a Russian advance on Odessa, a major port on the Black Sea. And a bloody battle for Kyiv, the capital, loomed, as Ukrainian and Russian troops engaged in fierce fighting in the suburbs around the city.
In western Ukraine, a region that had been largely spared the heavy fighting in the south and east, Russian forces escalated their attacks on military targets, reporting the use of advanced hypersonic missiles to destroy a large underground military munitions depot in the town of Delyatin.
The Ukrainian military would only confirm that the depot, which held missiles and aviation ammunition, had been hit. “We have damage; there is destruction,” said Yuriy Ignat, a Ukrainian air force spokesman, adding that there was no information on casualties or the type of missiles that struck the depot.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
The Biden-Xi talk. In a two-hour call with China’s president, Xi Jinping, President Biden discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, detailing the implications and consequences if Beijing were to provide material support to Russia in its attacks.
The strike came one day after Russian missiles hit a warplane repair plant near Lviv in western Ukraine, rattling a city that has been a haven for Ukrainians fleeing more embattled areas. Last Sunday, a Russian airstrike hit a military base in western Ukraine, 11 miles from the border with Poland, where NATO forces are on high alert.
The fighting across Ukraine has led to to the fastest-moving exodus of European refugees since World War II. More than a fifth of the 44 million people who were living in Ukraine before Russia invaded last month have been internally displaced or have fled to other countries, according to estimates from the United Nations.
And for those who remain in the country, millions face a daily struggle for survival as cities hard hit by fighting run low on food and clean water, and lack medical care, heat and electricity.
On Friday, the United Nations completed its first convoy of humanitarian aid to the hard-hit city of Sumy in eastern Ukraine, delivering medical supplies, bottled water, ready-to-eat meals and canned food — enough to help about 35,000 people.
“We hope this is the first of many shipments delivered to the people trapped by fighting,” said Amin Awad, the crisis coordinator for the United Nations in Ukraine.
As NATO braces for any possible incursion into allied countries, the Norwegian authorities reported that four U.S. Marines had been killed on Friday when their Osprey aircraft crashed there during NATO exercises.
The cold-weather exercises, involving 30,000 troops from 25 countries in Europe and North America, were announced more than eight months ago and were not linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO said. But they have taken on greater significance in the aftermath of the invasion.
With no clear diplomatic solution to the war, and the death toll rising by the day, there has hardly been time to mourn the losses in Ukraine. But in the heart of Lviv, residents created a striking memorial: 109 empty strollers parked on the cobblestones in Rynok Square, meant to symbolize the 109 children that Ukrainian officials say have been killed by Russian bombardments.
A photo of the memorial, posted by Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovy, along with the hashtag #closethesky, was shared widely on Facebook.
“This is the terrible price of war that Ukraine is paying today,” Mr. Sadovy wrote. “We call on all adults around the world to stand as one shield to protect Ukrainian children and give them a future.”
Michael Levenson reported from New York, Marc Santora from Warsaw and Valerie Hopkins from Lviv, Ukraine. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine; and Victoria Kim from Seoul.