Kyiv (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed no let-up in his invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, even as the warring sides met for ceasefire talks and Kyiv appealed for relief supplies to reach shattered cities.
After the fall of a first major Ukrainian city to Russian forces, Putin appeared in no mood to heed a global clamour for an end to hostilities as the war entered its second week.
“Russia intends to continue the uncompromising fight against militants of nationalist armed groups,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin account of a call with French President Emmanuel Macron.
But Ukraine insisted that corridors for medical and other supplies were the bare minimum it expected, as negotiators arrived for the talks at an undisclosed location on the Belarus-Poland border.
A first round of talks on Monday yielded no breakthrough, and Kyiv says it will not accept any Russian “ultimatums”.
Putin, however, said any attempts to slow the talks process would “only lead to additional demands on Kyiv in our negotiating position”.
For his part, Macron said he feared that “worse is to come” in the conflict and condemned Putin’s “lies”, according to an aide.
The invasion, now in its eighth day, has created a refugee exodus and turned Russia into a global pariah in the worlds of finance, diplomacy and sports.
The UN has opened a probe into alleged war crimes, as the Russian military bombards cities in Ukraine with shells and missiles, forcing civilians to cower in basements.
“We will restore every house, every street, every city and we say to Russia: learn the word ‘reparations’,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video statement.
“You will reimburse us for everything you did against our state, against every Ukrainian, in full,” he said.
‘Just like Leningrad’
Zelensky claims thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed since Putin shocked the world by invading Ukraine, purportedly to demilitarise and “de-Nazify” a Western-leaning threat on his borders.
Moscow says it has lost 498 troops and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would praise their sacrifice at a meeting with his security chiefs.
“It’s a huge tragedy,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
“But we also admire the heroism of our soldiers. Their exploits will enter into the history books, their exploits in the struggle against the Nazis.”
The Kremlin has been condemned for likening the government of Zelensky, who is Jewish, to that of Germany in World War II.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept up a verbal barrage, accusing Western politicians of fixating on “nuclear war” after Putin placed his strategic forces on high alert.
While a long military column appears stalled north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Russian troops seized Kherson, a Black Sea city of 290,000 people, after a three-day siege that left it short of food and medicine.
Russian troops have been advancing elsewhere on the southern front and are besieging the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, which is without water or electricity in the depths of winter.
“They are trying to create a blockade here, just like in Leningrad,” Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said, referring to the siege of Russia’s second largest city, since re-named Saint Petersburg, by Nazi Germany’s invading army in World War II.
Ukrainian military authorities said residential and other areas in the eastern city of Kharkiv had been “pounded all night” by indiscriminate shelling, which UN prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.
Oleg Rubak’s wife Katia, 29, was crushed in the rubble of their family home in Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, by a Russian missile strike.
“One minute I saw her going into the bedroom. A minute later there was nothing,” Rubak, 32, told AFP, standing stunned and angry amid the ruins in the bitter winter chill.
“I hope she’s in heaven and all is perfect for her,” he said, adding through tears, “I want the whole world to hear my story.”
The war has displaced more than one million people, according to the United Nations. The body’s aid chief pleaded on Thursday for civilians in Ukraine to be protected and for humanitarian aid to enter unhindered. “Protect civilians, for God’s sake, in Ukraine; let us do our job”, emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths told AFP in Geneva.
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency urged Russia to “cease all actions” at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, including the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Putin now finds himself an international outcast, his country the subject of swingeing sanctions that sent the ruble into further freefall on currency markets on Thursday.
Russia’s central bank — whose foreign reserves have been frozen in the West — imposed a 30-percent tax on all sales of hard currency, following a run on lenders by ordinary Russians.
The unfolding financial costs were underlined as ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s slashed Russia’s sovereign debt to “junk” status.
Turmoil deepened on markets more broadly. European stocks slid and oil prices approached $120 per barrel.
Swedish furniture giant Ikea became the latest to halt operations in Russia, as well as Belarus.
Russia’s sporting isolation worsened as it lost the right to host Formula One races. And the International Paralympic Committee, in a U-turn, banned Russians and Belarusians from the Beijing Winter Games.
The UN General Assembly voted 141-5 to demand that Russia “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine. Only four countries supported Russia — Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria. China abstained.
Europe stepped up practical support as well as diplomatic. The German government is planning to deliver another 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a source said.
Leaving everything behind
Many Ukrainians have now fled into nearby countries, according to the UN refugee agency’s rapidly rising tally.
“We left everything there as they came and ruined our lives,” refugee Svitlana Mostepanenko told AFP in Prague.
Nathalia Lypka, a professor of German from the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, arrived in Berlin with her 21-year-old daughter.
“My husband and son stayed… My husband already served in the army, and he had to return to duty,” she said, before boarding a train for Stuttgart where friends were waiting.
Putin’s invasion has appeared hamstrung by poor logistics, tactical blunders and fierce resistance from Ukraine’s outgunned military — as well as its ever-swelling ranks of volunteer fighters.
Scores of images have emerged of burned-out Russian tanks, the charred remains of transporters and of unarmed Ukrainians confronting bewildered occupation forces.
US officials say the massive column of Russian military vehicles amassed north of Kyiv has “stalled” due to fuel and food shortages.
Russian authorities have imposed a media blackout on what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation”.
The Ekho Moskvy radio station — a symbol of new-found media freedom in post-Soviet Russia — said it would shut down after being taken off air over its invasion coverage.
But Russians have still turned out for large anti-war protests across the country, in a direct challenge to Putin’s 20-year rule.
Thousands of anti-war demonstrators have been detained.
“I couldn’t stay at home. This war has to be stopped,” student Anton Kislov, 21, told AFP.