LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Saturday that Ukrainian statehood is in jeopardy and likened the West’s sanctions on Russia to “declaring war,” while a promised cease-fire in the port city of Mariupol collapsed amid scenes of terror in the besieged town.
With the Kremlin’s rhetoric growing fiercer and a reprieve from fighting dissolving, Russian troops continued to shell encircled cities and the number of Ukrainians forced from their country grew to 1.4 million.
Bereft mothers mourned slain children, wounded soldiers were fitted with tourniquets and doctors worked by the light of their cellphones as bleakness and desperation pervaded. Putin continued to pin the blame for all of it squarely on the Ukrainian leadership and slammed their resistance to the invasion.
“If they continue to do what they are doing, they are calling into question the future of Ukrainian statehood,” he said. “And if this happens, it will be entirely on their conscience.”
He also hit out at Western sanctions that have crippled Russia’s economy and sent the value of its currency tumbling.
“These sanctions that are being imposed, they are akin to declaring war,” he said during a televised meeting with flight attendants from Russian airline Aeroflot. “But thank God, we haven’t got there yet.”
Ten days after Russian forces invaded, the struggle to enforce the temporary cease-fires in Mariupol and the eastern city of Volnovakha showed the fragility of efforts to stop the fighting across Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said Russian artillery fire and airstrikes had prevented residents from leaving before the agreed-to evacuations got underway. Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the effort.
A third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine will take place Monday, according to Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation. He gave no additional details, including where they would take place.
Previous meetings were held in Belarus and led to the failed cease-fire agreement to create humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of children, women and older people from besieged cities, where pharmacies have run bare, hundreds of thousands face food and water shortages, and the injured have been succumbing to their wounds.
In comments carried on Ukrainian television, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of residents had gathered for safe passage out of the city when shelling began Saturday.
“We value the life of every inhabitant of Mariupol and we cannot risk it, so we stopped the evacuation,” he said.
The West has broadly backed Ukraine, offering aid and weapons and slapping Russia with vast sanctions. But the fight itself has been left to Ukrainians, who have expressed a mixture of courageous resolve and despondency.
“Ukraine is bleeding,” foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a video released Saturday, “but Ukraine has not fallen.”
Russian troops advanced Saturday on a third nuclear power plant, having already taken control of two of the four operating in the country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with American lawmakers for additional help even as he insisted the enemy was being defeated.
“We’re inflicting losses on the occupants they could not see in their worst nightmare,” the Ukrainian leader said.
Russian troops took control of the southern port city of Kherson this week. Although they have encircled Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, Ukrainian forces have managed to keep control of key cities in central and southeastern Ukraine, Zelenskyy said Saturday.
Diplomatic efforts continued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Poland to meet with the prime minister and foreign minister, a day after attending a NATO meeting in Brussels in which the alliance pledged to step up support for eastern flank members.
In Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin at the Kremlin. Israel maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and Bennett has offered to act as an intermediary in the conflict, but no details of Saturday’s meeting have emerged.
In the wake of Western sanctions, Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship state-owned airline, announced that it plans to halt all international flights except to Belarus, starting Tuesday.
The death toll of the conflict was difficult to measure, but surely had surpassed 1,000.
The U.N. human rights office said at least 351 civilians have been confirmed killed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, but the true number is probably much higher. The Russian military, which doesn’t offer regular updates on casualties, said Wednesday that 498 of its troops had been killed.
Ukraine’s military is vastly outmatched by Russia’s, but its professional and volunteer forces have fought back with fierce tenacity since the invasion. Even in cities that have fallen to the Russians, there were signs of resistance.
Onlookers in Chernihiv cheered as they watched a Russian military plane fall from the sky and crash, according to video released Saturday by the Ukrainian government. In Kherson, hundreds of people protested the invasion, waving Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag and shouting, “Go home.”
Zelenskyy encouraged protests that drew thousands to the streets in Russian-occupied cities.
“Go on the offensive!” he urged. “You should take to the streets! You should fight!”
A vast Russian armored column threatening Ukraine’s capital remained stalled outside Kyiv. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said Saturday afternoon that the military situation was quieter overall on Saturday and that Russian forces hadn’t “taken active actions since the morning.”
While the shelling in Mariupol showed Russia’s determination to cut Ukraine off from access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, further damaging the country’s economy, it was Putin who was most on the offensive with his comments warning that a no fly zone would be considered a hostile act.
NATO has said it has no plans to implement such a no fly zone, which would bar all unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine. Western officials have said a main reason is a desire to not widen the war beyond Ukraine.
Zelenskyy has pleaded for a no-fly zone over his country and lashed out at NATO for refusing to impose one, warning that “all the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you.”
But as the United States and other NATO members send weapons for Kyiv, the conflict is already drawing in countries far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
As Russia cracks down on independent media reporting on the war, more major international news outlets said they were pausing their work there. Putin said nothing warrants imposing martial law at this point.
And in a warning of a hunger crisis yet to come, the U.N. World Food Program has said millions of people inside Ukraine, a major global wheat supplier, will need food aid “immediately.”
Ukraine’s president briefed U.S. senators Saturday by video conference as Congress considers a request for $10 billion in emergency funding for humanitarian aid and security needs. The U.N. said it would increase its humanitarian operations both inside and outside Ukraine and its Security Council scheduled an open meeting for Monday on the worsening humanitarian situation.
Kyiv’s central train station remained crowded with people desperate to flee. “People just want to live,” one woman, Ksenia, said.
Elsewhere in the capital, in a sign of nerves near breaking point, two people on a sidewalk froze in their tracks at the sound of a sharp bang. It was a garbage truck upending a bin.