Ukraine seeks ceasefire, humanitarian corridors at talks with Russia

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Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met on Thursday, March 3, and Kyiv said it would call for a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors to evacuate its besieged citizens, as the war entered its second week with Ukrainian cities surrounded and under bombardment.

Hundreds of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed since President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on February 24. Russia itself has been plunged into isolation never before experienced by an economy of such size.

The United Nations said more than 1 million refugees had fled in just seven days, one of the fastest exoduses in memory.

Ukrainian negotiator and presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak tweeted a picture of the delegations at a conference table in an undisclosed location. The Ukrainians wore battle fatigues and winter jackets; the Russians wore suits and ties.

Podolyak said Ukraine would demand an immediate ceasefire, armistice and “humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians from destroyed or constantly shelled villages/cities.”

Neither side has suggested it was expecting breakthroughs after a first round of talks held in Belarus on Monday led to no progress.

Despite an initial battle plan that Western countries said was aimed at swiftly toppling the Kyiv government it describes as dangerous nationalists who threaten its security, Russia has captured only one Ukrainian city so far – the southern Dnipro River port of Kherson, which its tanks entered on Wednesday, March 2.

With its main assault force halted for days on a highway north of Kyiv, Russia has shifted tactics, escalating its bombardment of major cities. Swathes of central Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million people, have been blasted into rubble.

Mariupol, the main port of eastern Ukraine, has been surrounded under heavy bombardment, with no water or power. Officials say they cannot evacuate the wounded. The city council compared the situation to the World War Two siege of Leningrad.

‘Nothing to lose’

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has stayed in Kyiv, releasing regular video updates to the nation. In his latest message, he said Ukrainian lines were holding. “We have nothing to lose but our own freedom,” he said.

Britain’s defence ministry said the main body of the huge Russian column advancing on Kyiv was still 30 km (19 miles) from the city center, held up by Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion.

“The column has made little discernible progress in over three days,” it said in an intelligence update.

In Borodyanka, a small town 60 km (40 miles) northwest of Kyiv where locals had repelled a Russian assault, burnt out hulks of destroyed Russian armor were scattered on a highway, surrounded by buildings blasted into ruins. Flames from one burning apartment building lit up the pre-dawn sky.

“They started shooting from their APC towards the park in front of the post office,” a man recounted in the apartment where he was sheltering with his family, referring to a Russian armored personnel carrier.

“Then those bastards started the tank and started shooting into the supermarket which was already burned. It caught fire again.

“An old man ran outside like crazy, with big round eyes, and said ‘give me a Molotov cocktail! I just set their APC on fire!…Give me some petrol, we’ll make a Molotov cocktail and burn the tank!’.”

At least nine people were killed and four wounded in a Russian air strike that hit two schools and private houses in the eastern Chernihiv region on Thursday, governor Viacheslav Chaus said in an online post.

Footage from a car dashboard camera, verified by Reuters, showed buildings in a residential area in Chernihiv hit by apparent missiles. The street was engulfed in a fireball and a huge cloud of black smoke rose into the sky.

Two cargo ships came under apparent attack at Ukrainian ports. Four crew members were missing after Estonian-owned ship exploded and sank off Odessa, and at least one crew member was killed in a blast on a Bangladeshi ship at Olvia. Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest grain and food oil exporters from its Black Sea ports.

‘You are lying to yourself’

Amid Moscow’s increasing diplomatic isolation, only Belarus, Eritrea, Syria, and North Korea voted with Russia against an emergency resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning Moscow’s “aggression”.

Putin spoke by telephone to French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, telling him Russia would achieve its goals, including the demilitarization and neutrality of Ukraine, the Kremlin said. Macron told Putin “you are lying to yourself”, about the government in Kyiv, and said the war would cost Russia dearly, a French official said.

In Russia itself, where nearly all major opposition figures have been jailed or exiled in a crackdown over the past year, the authorities have banned reporting that describes the “special military operation” as an “invasion” or “war”.

Ekho Moskvy radio, the best-known independent broadcaster of the post-Soviet era and one of Russia’s few remaining liberal voices, shut itself down on Thursday after authorities ordered it off the air.

Riot police snatched peaceful protesters off the streets in St Petersburg late on Wednesday, including a 77-year-old woman filmed being muscled away by men in black helmets. Activists distributed footage of a small girl weeping behind bars, having been arrested for holding up a sign that said “No war”.

Stalled advance

Military analysts say Russia’s advance has been a tactical fiasco, with poorly maintained columns now confined to roads as spring thaw turns Ukrainian ground to mud. Each day the main attack force lies stuck on the highway north of Kyiv, its condition deteriorates, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.

“The longer Russian forces sit forward, the lower their readiness and performance will be. Everything from state of tires, to supply availability, and in the end morale,” he tweeted.

The great fear is that, as the likelihood of rapid victory recedes, Russia will fall back on tactics it used in Syria and Chechnya, where it pounded the cities of Aleppo and Grozny to ruins.

Russia has already acknowledged nearly 500 of its soldiers killed. Ukraine says it has killed nearly 9,000, though this
cannot be confirmed. Ukrainian authorities have offered to free Russian prisoners if their mothers come fetch them.

Kherson, a provincial capital of around 250,000 people, is the only significant urban center to fall. Mayor Igor Kolykhayev said he had asked the Russians who entered city hall “not to shoot people”.

The International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor said an advance team had left The Hague for the Ukraine region on Thursday to start investigating possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians and says its aim is to “disarm” Ukraine and arrest leaders it falsely calls neo-Nazis. — Reuters

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