By Yuras Karmanau – Associated Press
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Saturday that Ukraine’s statehood was under threat and likened Western sanctions against Russia to a “declaration of war,” while a ceasefire the promised fire in the port city of Mariupol collapsed amid scenes of terror in the besieged city.
As the Kremlin’s rhetoric grew increasingly fierce and a reprieve in the fighting dissolved, Russian troops continued to shell encircled towns and the number of Ukrainians driven from their country rose to 1.4 million.
Stripped mothers mourned slain children, wounded soldiers were fitted with tourniquets and doctors worked by the light of their cellphones as sadness and despair gripped. Putin continued to blame all of this on the Ukrainian leadership and criticized their resistance to the invasion.
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“If they continue to do what they are doing, they are calling into question the future of the Ukrainian state,” he said. “And if that happens, it will be entirely on their conscience.”
He also denounced Western sanctions which have crippled the Russian economy and caused the value of its currency to plummet.
“These sanctions that are being imposed are akin to a declaration of war,” he said in 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 temporary ceasefires in Mariupol and the eastern town of Volnovakha has shown the fragility of efforts to stop fighting across Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said artillery fire and Russian airstrikes prevented residents from leaving before agreed evacuations began. Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the effort.
A third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine will take place on Monday, according to Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation. He gave no further details, including where they would take place.
Previous meetings took place in Belarus and led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement aimed at creating humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of children, women and the elderly from besieged cities, where pharmacies have run out, hundreds of thousands of people are facing food and water shortages, and the injured have succumbed to their injuries.
In comments broadcast on Ukrainian television, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of residents gathered to get out of the city safely when the shelling began on Saturday.
“We value the life of every Mariupol resident and we cannot risk it, so we have stopped the evacuation,” he said.
The West has largely backed Ukraine, offering aid and arms and hitting Russia with sweeping sanctions. But the fight itself was left to the Ukrainians, who expressed a mixture of brave determination and discouragement.
“Ukraine is bleeding,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a video released on Saturday, “but Ukraine has not fallen.”
Russian troops advanced on a third nuclear power plant on Saturday, having already taken control of two of the four operating in the country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded with US lawmakers for additional help even as he insists the enemy is being defeated.
“We are inflicting losses on the occupiers that 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. Despite encircling Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, Ukrainian forces managed to retain control of key towns in central and southeastern Ukraine, Zelenskyy said on Saturday.
Diplomatic efforts continued when US 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 where the he alliance pledged to strengthen its support for members of the eastern flank.
In Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Putin in the Kremlin. Israel has good relations with Russia and Ukraine, and Bennett has offered to mediate in the dispute, but no details of Saturday’s meeting have emerged.
In the wake of Western sanctions, Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship national carrier, announced plans to halt all international flights except to Belarus, starting Tuesday.
The death toll from the conflict was difficult to measure, but had surely exceeded 1,000.
The UN human rights office said at least 351 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but the true number is likely much higher. The Russian military, which does not provide regular casualty updates, said on Wednesday that 498 of its soldiers 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 the towns that had 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 by the Ukrainian government on Saturday. In Kherson, hundreds of people protested against the invasion, waving the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine and shouting: “Go home”.
Zelenskyy encouraged protests that drew thousands to the streets of Russian-occupied cities.
“Go on the offensive!” he urged. “You should take to the streets! You should fight!
A large Russian armored column threatening the Ukrainian capital remained stuck outside Kiev. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said on Saturday afternoon that the military situation was generally calmer on Saturday and that Russian forces had not “taken any active actions since the morning”.
While the Mariupol bombings showed Russia’s determination to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, further damaging the country’s economy, it was Putin who was the more offensive with his comments warning that a no-fly zone would be considered a hostile act.
NATO has said it does not plan to implement such a no-fly zone, which would prevent unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine. Western officials said a major reason was a desire not to expand the war beyond Ukraine.
Zelenskyy pleaded for a no-fly zone over his country and blasted NATO for refusing to impose one, warning that “everyone who dies from this day forward will also die because of you “.
But while the United States and other NATO members are sending weapons for Kiev, the conflict is already spreading to countries far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
As Russia cracks down on independent media reporting on the war, more mainstream international media have said they are suspending work there. Putin said there is no justification for imposing martial law at this stage.
And in a warning of a coming hunger crisis, the United Nations World Food Program said millions of people in Ukraine, a major global supplier of wheat, will need food aid “immediately”.
Ukraine’s president briefed U.S. senators on Saturday via video conference as Congress considers a request for $10 billion in emergency funding for humanitarian assistance and security needs. The UN has said it will increase its humanitarian operations inside and outside Ukraine and its Security Council has scheduled a public meeting on Monday on the worsening humanitarian situation.
Kiev’s central train station remained crowded with people desperate to flee. “People just want to live,” said one woman, Ksenia.
Elsewhere in the capital, in a sign of near-breaking-point nervousness, two people on a sidewalk froze in their tracks at the sound of a sharp bang. It was a garbage truck knocking over a garbage can.
Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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