An acting Ukrainian commander in the besieged city of Mariupol appealed Wednesday for a Dunkirk-style evacuation of troops and civilians there, referencing the dramatic World War II rescue operation in order to impart the gravity of the bloody and consequential onslaught he faces from the Russian invaders.
“The situation is very grave,” Serhiy Volynsky, the temporary commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, said in a video message shared online by Ukrainian officials.
Volynsky, known as Volyna, said 600 wounded soldiers are among those holed up at the Azovstal steel factory, the last remaining Ukrainian position in the strategic port city. They do not have the medical facilities or staff they need to survive. Hundreds of children, elderly people and those with special needs are also among the Ukrainians isolated there.
“I have addressed all the world’s leaders, world’s diplomats, I’ve appealed to Pope Francis. I’ve screamed as loud as I could so we are heard and the extraction procedure would be applied to us,” Volynsky said in Ukrainian, according to an accompanying translation of the video. He said he wishes to see, as an example, a rescue operation akin to the 1940 operation on the French coast at Dunkirk, when hundreds of navy ships along with everyday civilians marshaled whatever vessels they could find to save British and French troops surrounded by the German army.
“This allowed Allies to escape a catastrophe and hold an evacuation,” he added. “They were able to save more than 300,000 people. People were rescued both by military civilians, different organizations and simply people who cared.”
Volynsky did not specify what he would need to complete the evacuation. The adjacent Azov Sea and Black Sea remain international waterways, though the last NATO warship departed the region the month before Russia invaded.
Putin initially ordered his troops last week to cease advancing on the heavily fortified steel plant to avoid needless casualties, and instead to seal it off. The Russian offensive appears to have restarted this week.
The Ukrainian ministries of defense and foreign affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the latest appeal or whether Kyiv now seeks the full evacuation of the city, effectively ceding it to the Russians.
Volynsky has previously called for an evacuation so these troops may be able to fight in the future, even as some fighters there say they refuse to surrender the city.
Western officials have raised alarm in recent days about the situation in Mariupol, the scene of one of the most violent Russian offensives since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. The fighting there serves as a part of his apparent plan to connect the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed eight years ago, through Mariupol to the ongoing conflict zone in Ukraine’s east, a region known as the Donbas where Russia has focused its most recent attacks.
British military intelligence reported early Wednesday that shortages of Russian munitions and a ramped-up tempo of operations by forces loyal to Putin to complete the seizure of Mariupol has prompted the Kremlin’s air forces to use “dumb bombs” there that make indiscriminate civilian casualties significantly more likely. U.K. and U.S. military officials also confirmed this week that Russia has so far failed to secure Ukrainian airspace, meaning that much of its shelling comes from stand-off weapons based in Russia or Russian-held territory, not aircraft overhead, making it more difficult to strike specific targets.
Several attempts to create a humanitarian corridor have failed, with reports emerging that Russian forces have targeted some civilians as they’ve tried to leave. Ukrainian and Russian officials continue to negotiate over some sort of evacuation plan.
“My main message to you today is: Save Mariupol troops. Have an extraction procedure for us. It’s not 1940 anymore, it’s 2022 today,” Volynsky concluded. “People will just die here, the wounded will die. Civilians here die with us in bunkers, in private houses and residential buildings. They just get shot there. The city [is] almost completely wiped out from the face of the Earth.”