Ukraine ceasefire attempt fails amid Russian shelling
LVIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Saturday that Ukraine’s statehood was in jeopardy and likened Western sanctions against Russia to a “declaration of war,” while a ceasefire Promised fire in the port city of Mariupol crumbled amid scenes of terror in the besieged city.
As the Kremlin’s rhetoric grew increasingly fierce and a reprieve in the fighting dissolved, Russian troops continued to shell encircled towns and the number of Ukrainians driven from their country rose to 1.4 million.
Bereaved mothers mourned slain children, injured soldiers were fitted with tourniquets and doctors worked by the light of their cellphones as sadness and despair gripped. Putin continued to blame all of this on the Ukrainian leadership and criticized their resistance to the invasion.
“If they continue to do what they are doing, they are calling into question the future of the Ukrainian state,” he said. “And if that happens, it will be entirely on their conscience.”
He also denounced Western sanctions which have crippled the Russian economy and caused the value of its currency to plummet.
“These sanctions that are being imposed are akin to a declaration of war,” he said in a televised meeting with flight attendants from Russian airline Aeroflot. “But thank God we haven’t got there yet.”
Ten days after Russian forces invaded, the struggle to enforce the temporary ceasefire in Mariupol and the eastern town of Volnovakha has shown the fragility of efforts to stop fighting across Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said artillery fire and Russian airstrikes prevented residents from leaving before agreed evacuations began. Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the effort.
The third round of talks since Russia’s invasion will take place on Monday, Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, said on Saturday. He did not give further details, including where they will take place. The last round took place in Belarus.
Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had agreed evacuation routes out of the two cities with Ukraine. Prior to the announcement, Russia’s multi-day assault had caused growing misery in Mariupol, where AP reporters saw doctors trying in vain to save the lives of injured children, pharmacies found themselves empty and hundreds of thousands of people faced food and water shortages in freezing weather.
In comments broadcast on Ukrainian television, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of residents gathered to get out of the city safely when the shelling began on Saturday.
“We value the life of every Mariupol resident and we cannot risk it, so we have stopped the evacuation,” he said.
In recent days, Ukraine had urged Moscow to create humanitarian corridors to allow children, women and the elderly to flee the fighting, calling it “issue number one”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy raised the possibility that talks with Russia could lead to a lasting, albeit limited, ceasefire on Saturday. Elsewhere in the country, Ukrainian forces held key towns in central and southeastern Ukraine, while the Russians tried to keep Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy surrounded, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that Russia was ready for a third round of talks on this and other issues, but he claimed that “the Ukrainian side, the most interested party here, it seems, constantly invents various pretexts to delay the start of another meeting.
Diplomatic efforts continued when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Poland to meet with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, a day after attending a NATO meeting in Brussels where the he alliance pledged to strengthen its support for members of the eastern flank.
In Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Putin in the Kremlin. Israel has good relations with Russia and Ukraine, and Bennett has offered to act as a broker in the conflict. No details about Saturday’s meeting have yet emerged.
In the wake of Western sanctions, Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship national airline, announced plans to halt all international flights. except to Belarus, from Tuesday.
At least 351 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but the true number is likely much higher, the UN human rights office said.
Zelenskyy said on Saturday that 10,000 Russian soldiers had died in the war, a claim that could not be independently verified. “We are inflicting losses on the occupiers that they could not see in their worst nightmare,” the Ukrainian leader said.
The Russian military, which does not provide regular casualty updates, said on Wednesday that 498 of its soldiers had been killed.
Ukraine’s military might is vastly outmatched by Russia’s, but its military and volunteer forces have fought back with fierce tenacity since the invasion. Even in the towns that had fallen to the Russians there were signs of resistance.
Onlookers in Chernihiv cheered as they watched a Russian military plane fall from the sky and crash, according to video released Saturday by the Ukrainian government. In Kherson, hundreds of people protested against the invasion, shouting: “Go home”.
A large Russian armored column threatening the Ukrainian capital remained stuck outside Kiev. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said the military situation was generally calmer on Saturday and Russian forces “have not taken active actions since the morning”.
While the Mariupol bombings showed Russia’s determination to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, further damaging the country’s economy, it was Putin who was the more offensive with his comments warning that a no-fly zone would be considered a hostile act.
NATO has said it does not plan to implement such a no-fly zone, which would prevent unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine. Western officials said a major reason was a desire not to expand the war beyond Ukraine.
Zelenskyy pleaded for a no-fly zone over his country and blasted NATO for refusing to impose one, warning that “everyone who dies from this day forward will also die because of you “.
But while the United States and other NATO members are sending weapons for Kiev, the conflict is already spreading to countries far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
As Russia cracks down on independent media reporting on the war, more mainstream international media have said they are suspending work there. Putin said there was no justification for imposing martial law at this stage.
And in a warning of a coming hunger crisis, the United Nations World Food Program said millions of people in Ukraine, a major global supplier of wheat, will need food aid “immediately”.
Ukraine’s president was due to brief U.S. senators on Saturday via video conference as Congress considers a request for $10 billion in emergency funding for humanitarian assistance and security needs.
The UN Security Council has scheduled a public meeting on Monday on the worsening humanitarian situation. The United Nations estimates that 12 million people in Ukraine and 4 million fleeing to neighboring countries in the coming months will need humanitarian assistance.
Kiev’s central train station remained crowded with people desperate to flee. “People just want to live,” said one woman, Ksenia.
Elsewhere in the capital, in a sign of near-breaking-point nervousness, two people on a sidewalk froze in their tracks at the sound of a sharp bang. It was a garbage truck knocking over a garbage can.