Zelensky urges Putin to talk, warns war in Ukraine will set Russia back

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday issued an urgent appeal to Moscow for direct negotiations to “restore territorial integrity and justice” in Ukraine as Russian forces continued their attacks on the besieged suburbs of Kyiv and the southern city of Mariupol.

“It’s time to meet, it’s time to talk,” Zelensky said in a video address, reiterating his desire to speak personally with Russian President Vladimir Putin as the war in Ukraine raged for a fourth week. amid a flood of refugees, an expanding humanitarian crisis and unsuccessful ceasefire talks.

Russian military commanders’ “cruel and misguided tactics” of targeting civilians and destroying apartments, hospitals and churches, Zelensky said, have failed and only led to harsh punishments. Absent a peace deal, he said Russia could face “losses such that several generations will not be enough to lift.”

Fighting and shelling continued on several fronts across Ukraine on Saturday, even as Ukrainian authorities said Moscow and Kyiv had agreed on the creation of 10 humanitarian corridors to evacuate residents of cities under attack, including the capital. , kyiv, and the southeastern city of Mariupol.

Violent battles have been reported in Mariupol for control of the Azovstal steelworks, one of the largest in Europe, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said on Saturday. Russia’s real goal, he said, is not just the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, but also the deindustrialization of the country.

Zelensky accused Russia of blockading major cities in central and southeastern Ukraine – preventing the delivery of food and other supplies – in a bid to force residents to capitulate.

Putin has denied targeting civilians in the invasion, which he calls a ‘special operation’ and said it was necessary to ensure Russian security and protect Ukrainians with ‘blood ties’ to the Russia.

Video footage showed long lines of vehicles fleeing Mariupol, a strategic port city of about 400,000 people on the Sea of ​​Azov coast. For Russia, experts say, Mariupol is a vital target: its capture could help facilitate coordination and joint operations between Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and Russian forces in Crimea, which has was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Images of the city revealed a wide panorama of destruction – entire buildings and a shopping center ravaged by the attacks. A strike Monday in a maternity hospital killed at least three people, including a child, and left more than a dozen injured, authorities said. Residents left behind in Mariupol struggle to find food and water, and much of the town lacks electricity and residential heating, despite freezing temperatures, according to Ukrainian officials.

Street fighting in downtown Mariupol on Saturday hampered attempts to rescue hundreds of people who Ukrainian authorities said were trapped in the basement of a theater hit by a bomb or missile on Wednesday. Russia denied bombing the theatre.

“There are tanks…and artillery fire, and all kinds of weapons being fired in the area,” Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko said. BBC. “Our forces are doing everything they can to maintain their position in the city,” he added, “but the enemy’s forces are unfortunately larger than ours.”

In a video address early Saturday, Zelensky said some 130 people escaped or were rescued from the theater, some seriously injured, and people were still being rescued from the rubble.

More than 9,000 people were able to leave Mariupol in the past 24 hours, Zelensky said. Across Ukraine, he said, more than 180,000 people have been able to escape through humanitarian corridors. A bus convoy left on Saturday morning to transport Mariupol residents from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia, according to Ukrainian 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, pay attention,” Vereshchuk said. “Because it is extremely difficult to open the corridors, the enemy is insidiously breaking our agreements. Please, if there is an opportunity, use it today.

Nearly 6.5 million people have been displaced across Ukraine, the United Nations said on Friday, and some 3.2 million have fled the country. These estimates indicate that almost a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people have fled their homes, even as thousands continue to escape the violence, heading both abroad and to areas perceived as safe in Ukraine.

In another development, Russia announced on Saturday that it had deployed for the first time its latest hypersonic missile system – high-speed weapons that can evade missile defense systems – to destroy an underground depot where weapons and ammunition 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-torn nation and for humanitarian and other aid entering Ukraine.

Zelensky’s call to meet Putin is his latest attempt to have direct talks with the Russian leader, who made a celebratory appearance at a Moscow stadium on Friday, marking Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula to the ‘Ukraine.

During the rally, Putin repeated his claim that war was needed to stop the “genocide” of Russian speakers in Ukraine, a claim denied 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 from both sides cited progress in the talks, but in a Friday call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin accused the Ukrainians of stalling. A reading of the conversation in TASS, Russia’s state-run news agency, said the Russian leader had accused the ‘Kyiv regime’ of trying to delay negotiations by ‘putting forward increasingly unrealistic proposals’ .

Putin has insisted that his demands – including the “demilitarization” of Ukraine and his renunciation of any intention to join NATO or the European Union – be fully met before any cessation of armed hostilities.

Continued NATO membership is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, but Zelensky changed the issue this week, saying he accepts the country not joining the US-led alliance .

Zelensky tweeted on Friday that Ukraine retains its aspirations to join the European Union, saying he had had a “substantial conversation” with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Zelensky said that “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 to both for those displaced from the war and for supplies entering Ukraine from Poland, a NATO member. just 40 miles west.

Yet despite the attack, life went on as normal on Saturday in Lviv, which was isolated from the extreme violence seen in Kyiv, Mariupol and other cities. Many people in the city don’t bother to take cover, as instructed, when the sirens sound.

On Friday, residents placed 100 prams in a central square in this ancient city to symbolize the reported deaths of more than 100 children since the start of the Russian invasion.

McDonnell reported from Lviv and Jarvie from Atlanta.

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