Russia intensifies shelling in Ukraine as blasts again rock separatist region in Moldova
United Nations chief calls for ceasefire in meeting with Russian foreign minister
Russia pounded Eastern and southern Ukraine on Tuesday as the United States promised to "keep moving heaven and earth" to get Kyiv the weapons it needs to repel the new offensive, despite Moscow's warnings that such support could trigger a wider war.
Russian missile fire also knocked out a strategic railroad bridge along a route that links southern Ukraine's Odesa port region to neighbouring Romania, a NATO member, Ukrainian authorities said.
The attack on the bridge — along with a series of strikes on key railroad stations a day earlier — appears to mark a major shift in Russia's approach. Up until now, Moscow has spared strategic bridges, perhaps in hopes of keeping them for its own use in seizing Ukraine.
But now it seems to be trying to thwart Ukraine's efforts to move troops and supplies.
In the south, Ukrainian forces struck back in the Kherson region, while Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of the state-run Ukrainian Railways, said there were no injuries in the Russian attack on the railroad bridge in the Odesa region.
Battle for Donbas
After unexpectedly fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia's attempt to take Ukraine's capital early in the war, Moscow now says its focus is the capture of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region in Eastern Ukraine partly held by Moscow-backed separatists.
In its latest assessment of the fighting, the British Defence Ministry reported Russian advances and heavy fighting in the Donbas, with one town, Kreminna, apparently falling after days of street-by-street fighting.
In the gutted southern port city of Mariupol, authorities said Russian forces hit the Azovstal steel plant with 35 airstrikes over the past 24 hours. The plant is the last known stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the city. About 1,000 civilians were said to be taking shelter there with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers.
"Russia has drastically intensified strikes over the past 24 hours and is using heavy bunker bombs," said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor. "The number of those wounded will be clear once the rubble is cleared."
He also accused Russian forces of shelling a route it had offered as an escape corridor from the steel mill.
Beyond Mariupol, local officials said at least nine people were killed and several more wounded in Russian attacks on towns and cities in Eastern and southern Ukraine. Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region of the Donbas, said on the Telegram messaging app that Russian forces "continue to deliberately fire at civilians and to destroy critical infrastructure."
Ukraine's military also said Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, which lies in the northeast, outside the Donbas, but is seen as key to Russia's apparent bid to encircle Ukrainian troops in the Donbas from the north, east and south.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the UN said they agreed in principle that the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be involved in the evacuation of civilians trapped in the steel plant in Mariupol.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said discussions will be held with the UN humanitarian office and the Russian Defence Ministry on the evacuation.
Putin has accused Ukrainian troops of using civilians in the plant as shields and not allowing them to leave.
Kremlin warns West
Earlier on Tuesday, Guterres met Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov and called again for a ceasefire.
But Lavrov warned that if the Western flow of weapons continues, the talks aimed at ending the fighting will not produce any results.
A day earlier, Lavrov accused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of "pouring oil on the fire" with its support for Ukraine. He also warned against provoking World War III and said the threat of a nuclear conflict "should not be underestimated."
On Tuesday, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of officials from about 40 countries — including Canada — at the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany, and pressed allies to move "heaven and earth" to keep Ukraine well supplied with weapons.
Going into the Ramstein meeting, Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand stopped to speak to reporters and discussed Canada's shipments of weapons to Ukraine and last week's announcement that her government plans to send the Ukrainians modern artillery and ammunition.
CBC News reported that four M-777 howitzers were taken recently from the inventory of 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, based in Shilo, Man., and flown out on a C-17 heavy transport.
The Department of National Defence acknowledged the shipment in a statement at the time but did not confirm the number of weapons being shipped. When asked about the number on Tuesday at Ramstein, Anand hinted more howitzers might become part of the package.
Together, allied nations have rushed roughly $5 billion worth of military equipment to Ukraine since the invasion began on Feb. 24. The U.S. accounted for the lion's share of that total: $3.7 billion.
Blasts in separatist Moldova region
For the second day in a row, explosions rocked the separatist region of Transnistria in neighbouring Moldova, knocking out two powerful radio antennas close to the Ukrainian border and further heightening fears of a broader conflict erupting across Europe. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Ukraine all but blamed Russia.
The incident occurred in the city of Maiac, roughly 12 kilometres west of the border with Ukraine, according to the region's Interior Ministry. It comes just a day after several explosions believed to be caused by rocket-propelled grenades were reported to hit the Ministry of State Security in the city of Tiraspol, the region's capital.
No one was hurt in the explosions, officials said.
It was not clear who was behind the blasts in Transnistria, but the U.S. has repeatedly warned that Russian forces could launch "false-flag" operations to create a pretext for invading other countries. About 1,500 Russian troops are based in Transnistria, a long, narrow strip of land with about 470,000 people along the Ukrainian border. It has been under the control of separatist authorities since a 1992 war with Moldova.
Southern Ukraine and Moldova have been on edge since a senior Russian military officer said last week that the Kremlin's goal is to secure not just Eastern Ukraine but the entire south, so as to open the way to Transnistria.
With files from CBC News