A second attempt to evacuate civilians from a besieged city in southern Ukraine has collapsed amid renewed Russian bombardment, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the war on Ukraine and has declared that the invasion of Moscow could be stopped “only if Kiev ceases hostilities”.
Food, water, medicine and nearly all other supplies were desperately short on Sunday in the port city of Mariupol, where Russian and Ukrainian forces had agreed to an 11 a.m. ceasefire that would allow civilians and injured to be evacuated. But the Russian attacks quickly shut down the humanitarian corridor, Ukrainian officials said.
“There can be no ‘green corridors’ because only the diseased Russian brain decides when to start shooting and at whom,” Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said on Telegram.
The news dashed hopes that more people could escape the fighting in Ukraine, where Russia’s plan to quickly invade the country has been thwarted by fierce resistance. Russia has made significant progress in southern Ukraine and along the coast, but many of its efforts have stalled, including a huge military convoy that stood almost motionless for days north of Kiev .
Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky has rallied his people to remain defiant, especially those in towns the Russian soldiers have entered.
“You should take to the streets!” You should fight! he told Ukrainian television on Saturday. “We must get out and chase this evil from our cities, from our land.”
Mr Zelensky has also called on the United States and NATO countries to send more fighter jets to Ukraine, although that idea is complicated by questions about which countries would supply the plane and how. whose planes these countries would replace.
The war, now in its eleventh day, has caused 1.5 million people to flee the country. The head of the UN refugee agency called the exodus “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe” since World War II.
As he has often done, Mr Putin blamed Ukraine for the war, telling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday that Kiev must end all hostilities and meet “Russia’s well-known demands”. .
Mr Putin launched his attack with a series of false accusations against Kiev, including that it is run by neo-Nazis determined to undermine Russia with the development of nuclear weapons.
The Russian leader also told Mr Erdogan that he hoped Ukraine would “show a more constructive approach (to the talks), taking fully into account emerging realities”. A third round of Russian-Ukrainian talks is scheduled for Monday.
Mr Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the nuclear situation in Ukraine, which has 15 nuclear reactors and was the scene of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
The men agreed on the principle of a “dialogue” involving Russia, Ukraine and the UN’s atomic watchdog, according to a French official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in accordance with the practices of the presidency. Potential talks on the issue are to be held in the coming days, he said.
Mr Putin also blamed last week’s fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which Ukrainian officials said was caused by Russian attackers, on an “organized provocation by Ukrainian radicals”.
“Attempts to blame this incident on the Russian military are part of a cynical propaganda campaign,” he said, according to the French official.
It came as the International Atomic Energy Agency said Russian forces were tightening their grip on the station, Ukraine’s largest, which they seized last week.
The agency’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said on Sunday that Ukrainian staff members are now required to seek Russian approval for any operation, even maintenance, and that they have hampered normal communications by turning off certain mobile networks and the Internet. on the site.
Ukraine’s regulator said phone lines, as well as emails and faxes, were down. Mr Grossi said he was “extremely concerned about these developments”, adding that for the station to operate safely, “staff must be allowed to carry out their vital functions under stable conditions, without undue outside interference or pressure”.
International leaders, as well as Pope Francis, have called on Mr. Putin to negotiate.
In a highly unusual move, the pope said he had dispatched two cardinals to Ukraine, saying the Vatican would do everything possible to end the conflict.
“In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears flow,” said the pontiff in his traditional Sunday blessing. “This is not just a military operation, but a war that sows death, destruction and misery.”
After the collapse of the ceasefire in Mariupol on Saturday, Russian forces stepped up their shelling of the city and dropped massive bombs on residential areas in Chernihiv, a town north of Kiev, Ukrainian officials said.
The handful of residents who managed to flee Mariupol before the closure of the humanitarian corridor said the city of 430,000 was devastated.
“We saw it all: burning houses, all people sitting in basements,” said Yelena Zamay, who fled to one of the self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine held by pro-separatists. -Russians. “No communication, no water, no gas, no light, no water. There was nothing.”
British military officials have compared Russia’s tactics to those used by Moscow in Chechnya and Syria, where encircled towns have been pulverized by airstrikes and artillery.
“It will probably represent an effort to break the morale of Ukrainians,” said the British Ministry of Defense.
Mr Zelensky reiterated a request to foreign protectors to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which NATO has so far ruled out due to fears that such action could lead to a much larger war.
“The world is strong enough to close the sky to us,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video address on Sunday.
The day before, Mr Zelensky pleaded with US politicians in a video call to help get more warplanes to Ukraine.
US officials say Washington is discussing ways to get the planes to Ukraine in a complex scenario that would include sending US-made F-16s to former Soviet bloc countries, particularly Poland, which are now NATO members. These countries would then send Ukraine their own Soviet-era MiGs, which Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly.
But due to US fighter jet production backlogs, Eastern European countries would essentially have to give their MiGs to the Ukrainians and accept US promises that they would get F-16s as soon as possible. The fact that the next shipment of F-16s is destined for Taiwan adds to the difficulties, and the US Congress would be reluctant to delay those deliveries.
The Russian military has warned Ukraine’s neighbors against hosting its fighter jets, saying Moscow may consider these countries part of the conflict if Ukrainian planes carry out combat missions from their territory.
The death toll remains lost in the fog of war. The UN says it has only confirmed a few hundred civilians killed, but also warned the number was grossly underestimated.
Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Mr Zelensky, said Ukrainian officials and international aid organizations were working with Russia through intermediaries to establish humanitarian corridors from Bucha and Hostomel, which are suburbs of Kiev where heavy fighting took place.
Ukraine’s army is vastly outmatched by Russia’s, but its professional and volunteer forces have fought back with fierce tenacity. In Kiev, volunteers lined up on Saturday to join the army.
Even in the fallen cities 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 by the Ukrainian government. In Kherson, hundreds of protesters waved blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and shouted, “Go home.”
Russia has made significant progress in southern Ukraine as it seeks to block access to the Sea of Azov. Capturing Mariupol could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 in a move most other countries considered illegal.
The West has largely backed Ukraine, offering aid and arms shipments and hitting Russia with sweeping sanctions. But no NATO troops were sent to Ukraine, leaving the Ukrainians to fight the Russian soldiers alone.
Russia’s economy has been devastated by sanctions, the value of the ruble plunging and dozens of multinational companies shutting down or drastically reducing their activity in the country.
On Sunday, American Express announced that it would suspend operations in Russia, as well as in Russia-allied Belarus. American Express cards issued globally will no longer work in stores or ATMs in Russia, the company said, and American Express cards issued in Russia by local banks will also no longer work outside the country.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent the weekend visiting NATO member countries in Eastern Europe that have taken in refugees from Ukraine.
In Moldova on Sunday, he pledged support for the Western-leaning former Soviet republic which is watching Russia’s actions in Ukraine warily.
The UN has said it will increase its humanitarian operations inside and outside Ukraine, and the Security Council has scheduled a meeting on Monday on the worsening situation.
The United Nations World Food Program has warned of a looming hunger crisis in Ukraine, a major global supplier of wheat, saying millions of people will need food aid “immediately”.