KYIV, Ukraine —
Air-raid sirens wailed repeatedly Sunday in the capital, Kyiv, and in cities and towns across Ukraine, while rescuers in an embattled eastern village dug through the rubble of a bombarded school-turned-shelter, where up to 60 people were missing and feared dead.
As fighting raged in Ukraine’s east, tensions rose on the eve of a major Russian holiday celebrating the then-Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany 77 years ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to use Monday’s Victory Day commemorations to somehow glorify, or at least rebrand, his army’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put a very different stamp on the occasion, which is observed Sunday in Ukraine — a Soviet republic before it became independent more than 30 years ago — as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.
In a starkly dramatic video shot in the badly damaged Kyiv satellite town of Borodianka, occupied by Russia during Moscow’s failed attempt earlier in the war to capture the capital, Zelensky likened his country’s fierce resistance against the invasion to the World War II struggle against fascism.
“Never again?” he asked, with ruined buildings as a backdrop. “Try telling Ukraine that.”
Separately, the Ukrainian leader said in his overnight video address that the brutality of Russia’s war against its smaller neighbor “should remind every state and every nation that it is impossible to defeat evil once and for all.”
Amid continuing Western efforts to get Putin to break off his assault, leaders of the Group of Seven nations, including President Biden, were to hold a video consultation with Zelensky on Sunday. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was hosting the call, the German government said.
In the bomb-flattened port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said efforts would turn Sunday to extracting defenders of a sprawling steel plant that is the final Ukrainian redoubt in the strategic city.
The last of the civilians trapped there — women, children and the elderly — were brought to safety on Saturday, Ukraine said, after spending hungry and frightened weeks seeking safety in the steel plant’s warren of underground bunkers and tunnels.
“We are also working to evacuate our military,” Zelensky said in his overnight address. “We do not lose hope, we do not stop — every day we are looking for a diplomatic option that could work out.”
Russia, which has been trying since the start of the war to capture Mariupol, is thought to attach not only practical but symbolic importance to finally subduing the city in time for Monday’s Victory Day celebrations.
Putin declared victory in the battle of Mariupol on April 21, but full control of the city will give Moscow the ability to create a land bridge between territory where it holds sway and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.
Municipal officials have said up to 20,000 Mariupol residents have died in the course of the war, now in its 11th week, and satellite imagery has pinpointed the presence of mass graves on the ruined city’s outskirts.
In Ukraine’s eastern battle zone, Ukrainian officials described a horrific toll on noncombatants caught in intensifying Russian bombardment. Moscow’s forces have been using barrages of artillery, often hitting civilian areas, to try to break through Ukrainian lines.
In the village of Bilohorivka, in Luhansk province, about 90 people were sheltering at a school when it was bombed and burst into flames Saturday afternoon, Ukrainian officials said. Regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said about 30 people had been rescued, with two confirmed dead and seven injured, leaving dozens unaccounted for in the incinerated wreckage.
“Sixty people were likely to have died under the rubble,” he wrote Sunday on the Telegram messaging app.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry called the shelling of the school a war crime. Noting that the attack took place only hours before the start of Ukrainian commemorations of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the ministry said Russian forces were “constantly repeating the tragedy of World War II.”
In a separate episode in the village of Shypilovo, about 11 people were thought to have been inside a home that was hit by shelling, Gaidai said, citing preliminary information. His province, Luhansk, is one of two making up the Donbas region, the industrial heartland that Russia is trying to capture.
Western military analysts have painted Russia’s much-vaunted offensive in Ukraine’s east as beset by problems. An assessment Sunday by British military intelligence cited “difficulties in command and control, as well as faltering Russian performance on the front line,” a 300-mile arc stretching from Ukraine’s southeast to northeast.