Putin warns of consequences if third parties create no-fly zone over Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin has warned that Russia would consider any third-party declaration of a no-fly zone over Ukraine as participation in the war there, while Ukrainian officials blamed Russian shelling for breaching a ceasefire arranged in two cities to evacuate civilians.
The struggle to enforce the ceasefire in Mariupol, a strategic port in the south east, and the eastern city of Volnovakha, showed the fragility of efforts to stop fighting across Ukraine, as the number of people fleeing the country reached 1.4 million just 10 days after Russian forces invaded.
Mr Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the evacuation and even claimed Ukraine’s leadership was calling into question the future of the country’s statehood, saying that “if this happens, it will be entirely on their conscience”.
Earlier, the Russian defence ministry said it had agreed with Ukraine on evacuation routes out of Volnovakha and Mariupol, the site of growing misery amid an ongoing assault that created desperate scenes at hospitals and raised the prospect of food and water shortages for hundreds of thousands of people in freezing weather.
In comments carried on Ukrainian television, Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of people had gathered for safe passage out of the city and buses were departing when shelling began.
“We value the life of every inhabitant of Mariupol and we cannot risk it, so we stopped the evacuation,” he said.
Before Russia announced the ceasefire, Ukraine had urged Moscow to create humanitarian corridors to allow children, women and the older adults to flee the fighting, calling them “question number one”.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday said Russia was ready for a third round of talks on that and other issues, but he said that “the Ukrainian side, the most interested side here, it would seem, is constantly making up various pretexts to delay the beginning of another meeting”.
Diplomatic efforts continued as US secretary of state Antony Blinken arrived in Poland to meet 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 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 on Tuesday.
While a vast Russian armoured column threatening Ukraine’s capital remained stalled outside Kyiv, 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.
Even in cities that have fallen to the Russians, there were signs of resistance – peaceful or otherwise.
As homes in the northern city of Chernihiv burned from what locals blamed on the Russian shelling that has targeted Ukraine’s urban areas from the start, Ukrainian officials released images showing a Russian plane they said was shot down there.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said the situation was generally quiet Saturday and Russian forces “have not taken active actions since the morning.”
Instead it was Mr Putin who was most on the offensive with his comments warning against a wider war.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky 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”.
Nato has said a no-fly zone, which would bar all unauthorised aircraft from flying over Ukraine, could provoke widespread war in Europe.
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.
Mr Zelensky said Ukrainian forces were holding key cities in the central and south-eastern part of the country, while the Russians were trying to block and keep encircled Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.
“We’re inflicting losses on the occupants they could not see in their worst nightmare,” Mr Zelensky said.
He alleged that 10,000 Russian troops were killed in the 10 days of the war, a claim that could not be independently verified.
The Russian military does not offer regular updates on their casualties. Only once, on Wednesday, they announced a death toll of nearly 500.
“This is horrible,” Mr Zelensky said. “Guys 18, 20 years old – soldiers who weren’t even explained what they were going to fight for.”
As Russia cracks down on independent media reporting on the war, major international news outlets said they were pausing their work inside the country. Moscow also blocked Facebook and Twitter,
And in a warning of a hunger crisis yet to come, the UN World Food Programme has said millions of people inside Ukraine, a major global wheat supplier, will need food aid “immediately”.
Mr Zelensky briefed US senators on Saturday by video conference as Congress considers a request for billions of dollars in emergency funding for humanitarian aid and security needs.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that he made a “desperate plea for Eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes to Ukraine”.
And the UN Security Council scheduled an open meeting for Monday on the worsening humanitarian situation.
The United Nations estimates that 12 million people in Ukraine and four million fleeing to neighbouring countries in the coming months will need humanitarian aid.
At least 351 civilians have been confirmed killed since Russia’s invasion on February 24, but the true number is probably much higher, the UN human rights office has said.
Russia said Wednesday 498 of its troops had been killed and has not updated since.
Kyiv’s central train station remained crowded with people desperate to flee. “People just want to live,” one woman, Ksenia, said.
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox