Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued an urgent plea to Moscow on Saturday for direct negotiations to “restore territorial integrity and justice” in Ukraine as Russian forces kept up their attacks on the besieged suburbs of Kyiv and the southern city of Mariupol.
“It’s time to meet, time to talk,” Zelensky said in a video address, repeating his desire to personally hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as the war in Ukraine raged on for a fourth week amid a stream of refugees, a widening humanitarian crisis and fruitless ceasefire talks.
Russian military commanders’ “cruel and erroneous tactics” of targeting civilians and destroying apartments, hospitals and churches, Zelensky said, had failed and led only only to harsh sanctions. In theabsence of a peace settlement, he said Russia could face “such losses that several generations will not be enough for it to rise back up.”
Fighting and shelling continued Saturday on several fronts throughout Ukraine, even as Ukrainian authorities said that Moscow and Kyiv had agreed to the creation of 10 humanitarian corridors to evacuate residents from cities under attack, including the capital, Kyiv, and the southeastern city of Mariupol.
Fierce battles were reported in Mariupol for control of the Azovstal steel plant, one of the largest in Europe, Vadym Denysenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Saturday. Russia’s true aim, he said, is not only the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, but also the deindustrialization of the country.
Zelensky has accused Russia of blockading large cities in central and southeastern Ukraine — preventing the delivery of food and other supplies — in a bid to force inhabitants to capitulate.
Putin has denied targeting civilians during the invasion, which he calls a “special operation” and said was needed to insure Russian security and protect Ukrainians with “blood ties” to Russia.
Video images have shown long lines of vehicles fleeing Mariupol, a strategic port city of about 400,000 on the coast of the Sea of Azov. For Russia, experts say, Mariupol is an vital target: Its capture could help facilitate coordination and joint operations between Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and Russian forces in Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Images from the city have revealed a broad panorama of destruction — entire apartment blocs and a shopping center ravaged from attacks. A strike Monday on a maternity hospital killed at least three people, including a child, and left more than a dozen injured, authorities said. Residents remaining in Mariupol are struggling to find food and water, and much of the city lacks electricity and residential heating, despite freezing temperatures, Ukrainian officials say.
Street battles in Mariupol’s city center Saturday hampered attempts to rescue the fate of hundreds of people whom Ukrainian authorities said were trapped in the basement of a theater struck by a bomb or missile Wednesday. Russia denied bombing the theater.
“There are tanks… and artillery shelling, and all kinds of weapons fired in the area,” Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko told the BBC. “Our forces are doing everything they can to hold their position in the city,” he added, “but the forces of the enemy are larger than ours, unfortunately.”
In a video address early Saturday, Zelensky said that some 130 people had escaped or been rescuedfrom the theater, some seriously wounded, and people were still being rescued from the rubble.
More than 9,000 people had been able to leave Mariupol in the previous 24 hours, Zelensky said. Throughout Ukraine, he said, more than 180,000 have been able to escape via humanitarian corridors. A convoy of buses left Saturday morning to transport Mariupol residents from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia, according to Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
Vereshchuk urged residents of the village of Bervytsya, about 40 miles northeast of Kyiv, to walk four miles to the bridge in the nearby village of Mokrets and cross the Trubizh River to meet buses that would take them to Brovary.
“Residents of settlements, please be attentive,” Verershchuk said. “Because it is extremely difficult to open the corridors, the enemy insidiously breaks our agreements. Please, if there is an opportunity, use it today.”
Almost 6.5 million people have been displaced throughout Ukraine, the United Nations said Friday, and that some 3.2 million have fled the country. Those estimates indicate that close to one-quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million residents have fled their homes, even as thousands continue to escape the violence, heading both abroad and to areas perceived as safe within Ukraine.
In another development, Russia reported Saturday deploying for the first time its latest so-called “hypersonic” missile system— high-speed weapons that can elude missile defense systems — to destroy an underground depot where weapons and ammunitions were stored in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk.
It was the latest Russian strike on western Ukraine, a key corridor for displaced people fleeing the war-ravaged nation and for humanitarian and other aid entering Ukraine.
Zelensky’s plea to meet with Putin is his latest bid to have direct talks with the Russian leader, who on Friday appeared a celebratory appearance at a stadium in Moscow, marking Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine.
During the rally, Putin repeated his assertion that the war was necessary to stop the “genocide” of Russian speakers in Ukraine, a claim rejected by Ukrainian officials.
Negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have taken place every day this week, with no agreement on an end to the fighting. Earlier in the week, representatives for both sides cited progress in the talks, but in a call Friday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin accused the Ukrainians of stalling. A readout of the conversation in TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency, said the Russian leader accused the “Kyiv regime” of trying to delay negotiations by “putting forward more and more unrealistic proposals.”
Putin has insisted that his demands — including Ukraine’s “de-militarization” and its renunciation of any intention to join NATO or the European Union — be completely fulfilled before any cessation of armed hostilities.
Pursuit of NATO membership is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, but Zelensky shifted on the issue this week, saying he accepts that the country will not join the U.S.-led alliance.
Zelensky tweeted Friday that Ukraine retains aspirations to join the European Union, saying he had a “substantial conversation” with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Zelensky said the commission’s “opinion on [Ukrainian] application for EU membership will be prepared within a few months.”
In Lviv on Saturday, air raid sirens sounded a day after what authorities called a Russian strike on an aircraft maintenance facility next to the airport. No one was killed in Friday’s attack, officials said, but it was the first strike within the city limits of Lviv — a western city that is a key hub for both displaced persons from the war and for supplies entering Ukraine from Poland, a NATO member just 40 miles to the west.
Still, despite the attack, life went on at its normal pace Saturday in Lviv, which has been insulated from the extreme violence seen in Kyiv, Mariupol and other cities. Many people in the city don’t bother to take shelter, as directed, when air sirens sound.
On Friday, residents placed 100 baby carriages in a central square in the center of this ancient city to symbolize the reported deaths of more than 100 children since the Russian invasion began.