Russia says the flagship of its Black Sea fleet has been badly damaged and its crew evacuated after an explosion that a Ukrainian official says was the result of a missile strike.
“As a result of a fire, ammunition detonated on the Moskva missile cruiser. The ship was seriously damaged,” the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying by state news agency TASS, adding that the cause of the fire was being determined and the crew had been evacuated.
A Ukrainian official earlier said the Moskva had been hit by two anti-ship missiles, but gave no evidence.
“The Neptune missiles guarding the Black Sea caused very serious damage to the Russian ship,” wrote Maksym Marchenko, governor of Odessa, on Telegram.
The Moskva gained notoriety early in the war when it called on Ukrainian border troops defending the strategic Snake Island, a small outcrop in the Black Sea, to surrender, only to be defiantly rebuffed.
Last month, Ukraine said it had destroyed a large Russian landing support ship, the Orsk, in the smaller Sea of Azov, northeast of the Black Sea. Moscow has not commented on what happened to the ship.
The military setback for Russia comes as Ukraine warned that Moscow was stepping up efforts in the south and east as it claimed to have taken full control of the besieged port of Mariupol.
“Rocket shelling and artillery strikes continue. New columns of equipment are being brought in,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his evening address.
More than 1,000 Ukrainian marines defending the besieged city of Mariupol surrendered and the port was captured, Moscow said, as the presidents of four countries bordering Russia arrived in kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine.
In one of the most critical battles of the war, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday 1,026 soldiers from Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, including 162 officers, had “voluntarily laid down their arms” near the Ilyich steelworks in the city.
He later said that the “commercial seaport” of Mariupol was under full control of Russian forces.
There was no independent confirmation of the claims. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it had no information about the surrender and the Ukrainian military command said only that Russian forces were attacking the Azovstal industrial area and the port.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who says his forces are playing a major role in the battle, urged the last Ukrainians in hiding in Azovstal to surrender. The 26th Marine Brigade had said on Monday that it was preparing for a final battle in Mariupol.
The city, the main target yet to be brought under Russian control in the eastern Donbas region, has been surrounded and largely reduced to rubble during Moscow’s seven-week invasion. The city’s mayor has said that 21,000 civilians have been killed and more than 100,000 remain there awaiting evacuation.
Its capture would be the first fall on a major Ukrainian city and would help Russia secure a land passage between the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics in Donbas and Crimea, which Moscow occupied and annexed in 2014.
US President Joe Biden announced $800 million in new US military aid to Ukraine on Wednesday. He said this would include artillery, armored personnel carriers and helicopters. Biden added that it “would contain many of the highly effective weapons systems we have already provided and new capabilities tailored to the broader assault we expect Russia to launch in eastern Ukraine.”
The Polish and Baltic presidents headed to the Ukrainian capital by train on Wednesday to show support for the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his beleaguered troops in what Polish presidential adviser Jakub Kumoch called “this defining moment for the country.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda, Alar Karis from Estonia, Gitanas Nausėda from Lithuania and Egils Levits from Latvia met in the Polish city of Rzeszów, near the border with Ukraine. “Heading to kyiv with a strong message of political support and military assistance,” Nausėda tweeted from the station.
The schedule of the visit by the leaders of four NATO member states – who fear Russian attacks if Ukraine falls – was not disclosed for security reasons, but local media reported that the heads of state visited Borodianka, near kyiv.
Nausėda said the city was “full of pain and suffering” after “Ukrainian civilians were killed and tortured there, and residential houses and other civilian infrastructure were shelled”.
He said it was “hard to believe that such war atrocities could be perpetrated in 21st century Europe, but that is the reality. This is a war we must win.”
Zelenskiy told Estonian parliamentarians on Wednesday, without providing evidence, that Russia was using phosphorous bombs in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces in Mariupol said a drone had dropped a poisonous substance over the city, but there has been no independent confirmation Russia used banned chemical weapons.
While Russian troops have largely withdrawn from around the Ukrainian capital in the face of heavy resistance and logistical problems, Western officials and analysts say the invasion force is preparing for a major offensive in the east.
Military experts say local support, logistics, terrain in the region and Moscow’s appointment of a new senior general, Aleksandr Dvornikov, could improve the performance of a force the British Defense Ministry said on Monday. Wednesday that until now has been “hindered by an inability to unite and coordinate.”
The command of the Ukrainian armed forces said that the Russian forces were fully ready for a new assault on the eastern Donetsk and southern Kherson regions. “In Donetsk and Tavria [Kherson] directions, based on available information, the enemy is ready for offensive action,” the armed forces said in a Facebook post. In a later statement he added that Russia was trying to mobilize up to 70,000 people in Donetsk.
In other developments:
Volodymyr Zelenskiy denounced French President Emmanuel Macron’s refusal to call the killings in Ukraine “genocide” and his reference to the Russians as a “brotherly” people.
Top US officials are weighing whether to send a senior cabinet official to kyiv as a high-profile representative in a show of solidarity with Ukraine, a source familiar with the situation said on Wednesday. The news was first reported by Politico.
Fiji police on Thursday investigated the arrival of a luxury boat owned by a Russian oligarchquestioning his captain about how he brought the ship to the Pacific island nation without going through customs. Fijian newspapers reported that police had seized the Amadea superyacht, owned by a Russian billionaire, Suleiman Kerimov. who has been sanctioned by the US, Britain and the European Union for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and detained his crew.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to the report.