KYIV, March 22 ― Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday said his country would be “destroyed” before it surrenders its cities to invading Russian forces, as he doubled down on a call for direct talks with Vladimir Putin as the key to ending the war.
As Russia defended overnight strikes that reduced a Kyiv shopping mall to rubble, killing eight, US President Joe Biden held a call with European leaders to address the increasingly “brutal tactics” employed by Moscow ― undeterred by unprecedented Western sanctions.
But despite a soaring civilian toll, the Ukrainian president made clear his countrymen would not “hand over” the capital, the eastern city of Kharkiv, or the heavily bombarded and besieged Mariupol.
“Ukraine cannot fulfil Russian ultimatums,” he said. “We should be destroyed first.”
Nearly a month after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, Moscow has meanwhile ramped up its air and sea operations, flying 300 sorties in the past 24 hours, in a “desperate” bid to turn the tide against the Ukrainian resistance, a senior US defence official said.
In Kyiv, a new 35-hour curfew was ordered from 8.00 pm (1800 GMT) Monday, after Russian strikes ― likely a missile ― laid waste to the “Retroville” shopping complex where AFP reporters saw six bodies covered by black sheets on the ground.
“It's the biggest bomb to have hit the city until now,” said 30-year-old Dima Stepanienko, who found himself flung to “the foot of his bed” by the explosion.
An Orthodox priest walking through the wreckage whispered prayers while cursing “Russian terrorists”.
Russia claimed the mall was being used to store rocket systems and ammunition.
But Putin's troops have been increasingly accused of deliberately targeting civilians, including in Mariupol, scene of an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.
Almost 350,000 people are trapped without water and electricity in the southern port which has been relentlessly assaulted by Russia in what European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described as a “massive war crime”.
The United Nations has recorded 925 civilian deaths, including 75 children, since the invasion began.
But fatalities are almost certainly higher, with Mariupol officials saying the death toll in that city alone has surpassed 2,000 amid indiscriminate shelling.
Russia had given Mariupol until 5.00am Monday to surrender, a demand rejected by Kyiv, which said the bombed-out city ― where bodies have been piling up on the streets ― was bolstering Ukraine's defences.
“Today Mariupol is saving Kyiv, Dnipro and Odessa,” Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said.
Mariupol is a pivotal target in Putin's war ― providing a land bridge between Russian forces in Crimea to the southwest and Russian-controlled territory to the north and east.
Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of talks via videoconferencing, but so far without a major breakthrough, and Zelensky reiterated that direct talks with his Russian counterpart “in any format” were now needed.
“Without this meeting it is impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war,” he argued.
Away from the frontlines, Biden and allies Britain, France, Germany and Italy held a new crisis call at the start of a crucial week for the Western response to Russia's invasion, which will see Biden fly to Europe for talks with G7, EU and Nato leaders.
The White House said the leaders discussed their “serious concerns about Russia's brutal tactics in Ukraine, including its attacks on civilians.”
In the latest rhetorical shot fired between Washington and Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry said Biden's comments branding Putin a “war criminal” had put relations “on the verge of rupture.”
Biden for his part warned of intelligence pointing to a growing Russian cyber threat and urged US businesses to immediately “harden” their cyber defences.
Separately, foreign ministers of the European Union gathered to weigh fresh sanctions against Russia.
Zelensky urged Europe in his latest video address to significantly dial up the pressure, saying the continent must cease all trade with Russia.
“No euros for the occupiers,” Zelensky said.
Some EU members are pushing for a complete embargo on Russian oil and gas, but Germany has so far rejected the call, warning it could spark social instability.
At the Kremlin, spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile warned such an embargo would “have a very serious impact on the world energy market,” where oil prices are already sky-high over the conflict.
With the war edging closer to a stalemate, Zelensky is making increasingly desperate appeals for the West to do more.
Nato has rebuffed Ukraine's pleas to intervene in the conflict, including imposing a no-fly zone to help halt Russian bombings, instead pledging a flow of military support in the form of weapons like portable anti-tank systems.
Zelensky had long sought Ukraine's inclusion in the transatlantic military alliance, a position Putin fiercely opposes and invoked as a pretext for invading.
But as he recently conceded, Zelensky indicated again Monday that Kyiv recognizes it will not join Nato, because its member states “are afraid of Russia.”
“We have all already understood it,” Zelensky said.
“And we have to calm down and say: 'Ok (we need) other security guarantees',” including possibly from Nato countries operating independently from the alliance, he told Ukrainian public media.
Any such “compromise” in a peace deal with Moscow would need to be submitted to a referendum voted on by Ukrainians, Zelensky said.
With casualties mounting, Kyiv also turned to another major world power, China, urging it to “play an important role in” ending the conflict.
Spectre of famine
Humanitarian conditions have continued to deteriorate in the mostly Russian-speaking south and east, where Putin's forces have been pressing their advance, as well as in the north around Kyiv.
Aid agencies are struggling to reach people trapped in besieged cities.
Around 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, roughly one-third going abroad, the UN refugee agency said.
War repercussions are spreading beyond the region, with famine feared in parts of the world because Russia and Ukraine are both major agricultural exporters ― and Sudan seen as especially vulnerable.
Signs of strain are also appearing in Russia, where panic buying at supermarkets prompted warnings not to stockpile.
“I want to calm our citizens: we are fully self-sufficient when it comes to sugar and buckwheat,” said the country's deputy prime minister, Viktoria Abramchenko said. ― AFP