Talks between Ukraine and Russia are confrontational but moving forward, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday, as authorities appealed to the Russians to allow tens of thousands of people to escape the besieged city of Mariupol amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Sustained Russian air attacks have turned Mariupol into the “ashes of a dead land”, the city council said on Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands are believed to be trapped inside buildings, with no access to food, water, power or heat. Both civilians and Ukrainian troops have been coming under Russian fire in a port city that is normally home to about 400,000 people, according to the regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Russian forces and Russian-backed separatist units had taken about half of the port city, Russia’s RIA news agency said, citing a separatist leader.
But in an early morning address, Zelenskyy held out hope for negotiations with Moscow, which have so far made little progress.
“It’s very difficult, sometimes confrontational,” he said. “But step by step we are moving forward.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he also saw progress in the talks.
“From my outreach with various actors, elements of diplomatic progress are coming into view on several key issues,” and the gains are enough to end hostilities now, he said. He gave no details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, has forced more than 3.5 million to flee overseas, brought on the unprecedented isolation of Russia’s economy, and raised fears of a wider European conflict.
Zelenskyy accused Russian forces of not only blocking a humanitarian convoy trying to take desperately needed aid to Mariupol, but seizing what another Ukrainian official said were 15 of the bus drivers and rescue workers on the aid mission, as well as their vehicles.
Zelenskyy said the Russians had agreed to the route ahead of time.
“We are trying to organise stable humanitarian corridors for Mariupol residents, but almost all of our attempts, unfortunately, are foiled by the Russian occupiers, by shelling or deliberate terror,” he said in his video address.
Explosions and bursts of gunfire also shook Kyiv, the capital, and heavy artillery fire could be heard from the northwest, where Russia has sought to encircle and capture several of the city’s suburbs.
Ukrainian troops drove Russian forces from the suburb of Makariv after a fierce battle, according to Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said, but added that Russian forces had partially taken other northwestern suburbs, Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin.
The continued bombardment of Ukraine comes as Western nations prepare to increase pressure on the Kremlin, with the US expected to announce new sanctions as early as Thursday, according to the Wall Street Journal.
US President Joe Biden is expected to announce the latest measures when he visits Brussels this week to attend an emergency NATO summit, a G7 meeting, and a meeting of the European Council.
“He will have the opportunity to coordinate on the next phase of military assistance to Ukraine. He will join our partners in imposing further sanctions on Russia and tightening the existing sanctions to crack down on evasion and to ensure robust enforcement,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments, said Ukrainian resistance has brought much of Russia’s advance to a halt but has not sent Moscow’s forces into retreat.
Some are concerned that what appears to have become a war of attrition, with Russia bombing cities to rubble, could escalate, even to a nuclear war.
Russia’s security policy dictates that the country would only use such weapons if its very existence were threatened, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN in an interview.
“If it is an existential threat for our country, then it [the nuclear arsenal] can be used in accordance with our concept,” he said.
Putin’s aims remain to “get rid of the military potential of Ukraine” and to “ensure that Ukraine changes from an anti-Russian centre to a neutral country,” Peskov said.
Russia’s stronger, larger military has many Western military experts warning against overconfidence in Ukraine’s long-term odds. Russia’s practice in past wars in Chechnya and Syria was to grind down resistance with attacks that flattened cities, killed countless civilians, and sent millions fleeing.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said on Tuesday it had recorded 953 civilian deaths and 1,557 injured since the invasion. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, speaking on Ukrainian television on Tuesday, said at least 100,000 people wanted to leave Mariupol but could not.
Zelenskyy, in his address, said more than 7,000 people were evacuated from the battered city on Tuesday. But about 100,000 remain there “in inhuman conditions, under a full blockade, without food, without water, without medicine, and under constant shelling, under constant bombardment.”
Like Zelenskyy, the Red Cross said a humanitarian aid convoy trying to reach the city with desperately-needed supplies had not been able to enter.
Residents who managed to flee the bombardment said conditions were dire.
The hands of one were shaking as she arrived by train in the western city of Lviv.
“There’s no connection with the world. We couldn’t ask for help,” said Julia Krytska, who was helped by volunteers to escape with her husband and son. “People don’t even have water there.”
A senior US defence official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to give the Pentagon’s assessment, said Russian ships in the Sea of Azov had joined the shelling of the city. The official said there were about seven Russian ships in that area, including a minesweeper and a couple of landing vessels.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said that troops defending the city had destroyed a Russian patrol boat and electronic warfare complex.
Kyiv has accused Moscow of deporting residents of Mariupol and separatist-held areas of Ukraine to Russia. This includes the “forcible transfer” of 2,389 children to Russia from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said.
Moscow denies forcing people to leave, saying it is taking in refugees.
In Kherson, a city under Russian control, Ukrainian officials said Moscow’s forces were also preventing supplies from reaching civilians.
“Kherson’s 300k citizens face a humanitarian catastrophe owing to the Russian army’s blockade,” foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.
Russia did not immediately comment on the situation in the city.