(Kyiv) The Russian army again attacked the strategic port of Mariupol on Saturday and advanced elsewhere in Ukraine, with still fierce fighting around the capital Kyiv and thousands of civilians fleeing the shelling, while Vladimir Putin issued new warnings to NATO.
“Due to the reluctance of the Ukrainian side to influence the nationalists or extend the ‘ceasefire’, offensive operations have resumed since 6 p.m. Moscow time,” or 10 a.m. (ET), said the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Ukrainians had postponed the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, on the Black Sea, and another besieged city a few hours earlier, citing ceasefire violations by Russian forces, which the latter denied.
As a result, the humanitarian crisis worsened: 1.37 million people have already taken refuge abroad since the invasion on February 24, according to the UN, and there are more than a million displaced people in the country.
It was a rush in the stations, even in a city spared from violence like Dnipro (center), to ship women and children west after heartbreaking farewells.
This exodus sparked a strong mobilization, especially in neighboring states such as Poland, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to the border with Ukraine on Saturday, meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kouleba.
“The message of the heroic Ukrainian people is simple: Russians, go home […] Putin, leave Ukraine alone. You will not win the war”, launched Mr. Kouleba.
He asked for aircraft and air defense systems, calling NATO’s refusal to implement a no-fly zone over his country a “sign of weakness”.
After a trip to Latvia, a Baltic state bordering Russia, the American Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, underlined that if such a zone were created, “we would then have to go there and actively fighting” the Russians, which the Atlantic Alliance does not want to do.
Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened “colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe, but for the whole world”, if such a zone were created. Russia would consider as co-belligerent any country attempting to impose it.
Increasingly isolated on the international scene, the master of the Kremlin received the same day in Moscow the head of the Israeli government Naftali Bennett, the first foreign leader to visit Russia in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Beginning a real mediation, Mr. Bennett then spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, before talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
At the same time, in Washington, elected members of Congress promised to release $ 10 billion in aid for Ukraine, during a virtual exchange with President Zelensky.
“We encourage direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a telephone conversation with Antony Blinken.
The head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell has also pleaded in the Spanish press for China to play a role of mediator.
This war and the sanctions imposed on Russia “will also have a substantial impact on the world economy and financial markets, with collateral effects for other countries”, warned the International Monetary Fund, saying it feared “devastating” consequences. .
Tough battle in Mariupol
In the south-east of Ukraine, the fall of Mariupol, a city of around 450,000 inhabitants bombarded for several days by the Russians and their allies from the two separatist territories of Donbass, would be an important turning point on the tenth day of the invasion. .
It would allow the junction between the troops coming from annexed Crimea, which have already taken the other key ports of Berdiansk and Kherson, and those of Donbass, then to these consolidated forces to go up towards the north.
The Russian army, which has made significant progress in Ukrainian territory in 10 days of fighting, could therefore increase military pressure on the center and the northern part, where the fighting is raging, particularly in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
“In Mariupol, the situation is catastrophic and getting worse day by day,” Laurent Ligozat, emergency coordinator for the NGO Médecins sans frontières (MSF), told AFP, adding that the inhabitants lacked everything: water- to the point of having to collect and melt snow for it, electricity, heating and food, many stores having been destroyed.
The toll of the conflict is impossible to verify independently. Kyiv reports at least 350 civilians and more than 9,000 Russian soldiers killed, without mentioning its military losses, and Moscow mentions 2,870 dead on the Ukrainian side and 498 in its ranks.
Shelling near Kyiv
The siege of Mariupol, which in 2014 withstood the onslaught of pro-Russian units, comes as Russian soldiers approach Kyiv, encountering tenacious resistance and sometimes bombarding apartment buildings, notably in Cherniguiv, 150 km to the north of the capital, where dozens of civilians have been killed in recent days.
An AFP team that visited the scene on Saturday saw scenes of devastation in this city of 300,000 people which was being emptied of its population, raising fears of a similar fate for Kyiv once the missile batteries and the Russian artillery at the gates of the capital.
“There were bodies all over the floor. They were queuing for the pharmacy there, here, and they all died,” testified Sergei, a survivor.
For his part, President Zelensky assured that the Ukrainian forces had launched a counter-attack around Kharkiv (north-east), the second largest city in the country, the scene of some of the most intense bombardments since the start of the invasion.
The Russian army was still shelling the surroundings of Kyiv, in the northwest and east in particular. Where, the day before, a supermarket and a gas station stood at the major crossroads between the working-class towns of Bucha and Irpin, near the capital, there remained only ruins and fleeing inhabitants on Saturday.
In a hospital in northern Kyiv, wounded Ukrainian soldiers told AFP of their unequal struggle under a deluge of fire. “We were on reconnaissance” and “we came across an enemy column”, explained Motyka, a 29-year-old soldier hit by shrapnel on the right flank, who had to retreat with his comrades: “We fought them and we killed their soldiers on foot, but they showered us with mortar fire”.
Third round of talks
According to the Ukrainian authorities, a third round of negotiations with the Russians will take place on Monday.
But the chances of achieving progress seem slim, Vladimir Putin having warned that dialogue with Kyiv would only be possible if “all Russian demands” were accepted, in particular a “neutral and non-nuclear” status for Ukraine and its ” mandatory demilitarization”.
In Russia, the Kremlin has tightened its repression of all dissenting voices in the face of the conflict.
A law providing for up to 15 years in prison for anyone publishing “false information” was enacted on Friday.
As a result, many leading foreign media announced on Saturday the temporary cessation of their coverage from Moscow.
At the same time, demonstrations against the war multiplied in Europe: there were more than 40,000 people on Saturday in Zurich, the most populous city in Switzerland, more than 40,000 in France, including 16,000 in Paris, thousands also in Rome, a few hundred in central London.