Moscow is preparing to hold a referendum in Mariupol on whether the city will join Russia, Ukrainian officials have claimed, following the announcement of a similar poll in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the port city mayor who operates in exile, said sources among those remaining among the ruins believed a vote on its future was under way, even though residents were without food and water.
The ruins left by Mariupol, a seaside resort that once housed 400,000 people, are largely occupied by Russia, though as many as 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers endure in the vast Azovstal steelworks by the harbor in the face of relentless shelling.
Andryushchenko told Observer that an announcement of a referendum could come as early as Sunday, though he said there was as yet no evidence that polling stations had been established.
He said on Saturday: “We have some information that the Russian authorities are preparing a referendum and could even print it tomorrow, but we do not yet know if that is the case. But we see a lot of integration of Mariupol into it. Russian system, education system, banking system. “
South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov had announced on Friday that he would hold a referendum on joining Russia on July 17, claiming “we are coming home” and quoting his people’s “historical aspiration” to join Russia.
Moscow’s original plan to conquer all of Ukraine failed after losing the bloody battle for Kiev. The Kremlin has since focused on securing a piece of land around the eastern and southeastern part of the country.
The development came when Ukrainian officials were able to claim some major military successes, with the mayor of Kharkiv saying that Russian forces had now withdrawn “far out” of Ukraine’s second largest city.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Army reiterated the comments, reporting that the Russians had left their positions around the northeastern city, located 50 km from the Russian border.
The relentless shelling that the civilian population in the region endured, according to the regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, had also stopped, while Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive near the city of Izyum, 78 miles south of Kharkiv.
But Putin’s forces have captured territory in the Donbas region, including Rubizhne, a city with a population of about 55,000 before the war, and the situation is becoming increasingly serious for the remaining soldiers trapped in the Azovstal steelworks.
At a press conference in Kiev, Natalia Zarytska, wife of Bogdan Sements, who is among those trapped in the steelworks, called on China to intervene and help liberate the remaining people.
She said: “Strong leaders can not stand by when there is evil. After all these negotiations, there is one person worldwide who would be difficult for Vladimir Putin to reject. We hope that a strong and good China can take difficult decisions for the good.
“We ask the Honorable Prime Minister of China, Xi Jinping, to express his love and care for global values and Eastern wisdom and join the process of rescuing Mariupol’s defenders.”
Hanna Ivleieva, a military service person and wife of a soldier in Mariupol, said that only those who had lost their arms or legs did not fight among the Ukrainian forces left in the city.
She said: “I am a soldier with the Marines. My husband, my commanders and close friends are now in Azovstal.
“They were the first to engage in combat in this war. We are proud of all Azovstal defenders as they are stronger than the steel previously produced here.
“But we do not want them killed there. We need our heroes alive. “We ask the President of China, as Putin’s economic partner, to carry out all the necessary procedures and save our guys.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said talks with Moscow to pull a “large number” of wounded defenders and some doctors out of the steelworks in exchange for the release of Russian prisoners of war were “very complex”, adding that Kiev used influential intermediaries.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told local television on Saturday that efforts were now focused on evacuating about 60 people.
Ibrahim Kalin, senior foreign policy adviser to Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, said on Saturday that the Turkish government had proposed to Moscow a naval evacuation of the wounded soldiers.
As the war progresses, foreign ministers from the world’s seven richest countries, the G7, warned at the end of a three-day meeting in Germany that millions of people would starve to death unless Russia allows the export of Ukrainian grain from blocked ports. G7 governments said Putin was pushing 43 million people against famine by refusing to allow grain to leave Ukraine via Black Sea ports.
“Russia’s unprovoked and pre-meditated war of aggression has exacerbated the global economic outlook with sharply rising food, fuel and energy prices,” they said in a joint statement. “Combined with Russia blocking Ukraine’s grain exit routes, the world is now facing a worsening state of food insecurity and malnutrition … This is at a time when 43 million people were already a step away from famine.” , Mélanie Joly, told reporters: “We have to make sure these grains are sent to the world. If not, millions of people will face famine.”
The G7 countries said they would extend sanctions against Russia and that they would not accept the new borders Russia is seeking to draw.
They said: “We will never recognize borders, Russia has tried to change by military aggression, and we will maintain our commitment to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Crimea and all states.
“We reaffirm our commitment to further increase economic and political pressure on Russia and to continue to act in unity.”
They called on China not to help Putin and “to refrain from engaging in information manipulation, misinformation and other means to legitimize Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine”.
Three weeks before Putin began his war in Ukraine, the Russian president signed a pact with his Chinese counterpart that said there would be “no borders” for cooperation between the two countries.