Vladimir Putin claimed on Saturday that western sanctions were akin to a declaration of war, as Russia was blamed for the collapse of a ceasefire designed to allow tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians to escape the besieged cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha.
Moscow and Kyiv traded blame over the failure to provide safe passage to civilians fleeing the two bombarded cities, on the tenth day of the conflict that has fuelled one of Europe’s gravest humanitarian disasters and forced at least 1.3 million people to flee Ukraine.
As the agreement appeared to be in tatters, Mr Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the evacuation effort, claimed that the country’s statehood was in jeopardy, and lashed out at the west for the sanctions it has imposed on Russia.
“These sanctions that are being imposed are akin to a declaration of war, but thank God it has not come to that,” the Russian president said in a rambling speech to a group of flight attendants at an Aeroflot training centre near Moscow.
Ukraine and western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for the invasion he launched on 24 February.
In the wake of the sanctions, Aeroflot, Russia’s state-owned airline, said it would halt all international flights except to Belarus.
Mr Putin also warned that any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be tantamount to entering the conflict.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has demanded that Nato impose a no-fly zone over his country – a request that the military alliance rejected on the grounds it could provoke a more widespread war in Europe.
Meanwhile, the struggle to enforce the temporary ceasefire in the southeastern port of Mariupol and the eastern city of Volnovakha highlighted the fragility of efforts to stop the fighting across Ukraine – with reports of explosions in Kyiv and a Russian plane being shot down in Chernihiv. Despite the ceasefire announcement, Russia’s defence ministry had said that a broad offensive would continue.
Just hours after the temporary truce was declared, Ukrainian officials said Russian artillery fire and airstrikes had prevented 200,000 people from leaving Mariupol and 15,000 from leaving Volnovakha before the agreed evacuations got under way.
Earlier, the Russian defence ministry said its units had opened humanitarian corridors near the two cities in agreement with Ukraine.
But Mariupol’s city council said Russia was not observing the ceasefire, and it asked residents to return to shelters and await further information on evacuation.
“We value the life of every inhabitant of Mariupol and we cannot risk it, so we stopped the evacuation,” the city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said in comments broadcast on Ukrainian television.
The southeastern port has endured heavy bombardment, a sign of its strategic value to Moscow thanks to its position between Russian-backed, separatist-held eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukrainian “nationalists” of preventing civilians from leaving. Later on Saturday, the UK’s defence ministry said that Russia’s proposed ceasefire in Mariupol was probably a bid to deflect global condemnation while it reset its forces.
Despite the failed evacuation, Ukrainian negotiators said a third round of talks with Russia on a ceasefire would happen on Monday.
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On the diplomatic front, Mr Putin met Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett in the Kremlin on Saturday to discuss the crisis, after Israel offered to mediate. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will speak to the Russian leader on Sunday and is expected to tell him to stop the invasion.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state Antony Blinken visited Poland, where he met refugees and held talks with the prime minister and foreign minister a day after attending a Nato meeting in Brussels, in which the alliance pledged to boost support for eastern flank members.
On Saturday evening during a call with US senators, Mr Zelensky made a “desperate plea” for eastern Europe to provide Russian-made aircraft to his country, according to the chamber’s majority leader, Chuck Schumer.
Shortly after, Russia’s foreign ministry called on European Union and Nato countries to “stop pumping weapons” to Ukraine, according to the Russiannews agency RIA.
Meanwhile, in several Ukrainian cities, there were signs of resistance – peaceful or otherwise.
As homes in the northern city of Chernihiv burned from shelling, Ukrainian officials released images showing a Russian plane they said had been shot down.
In Kherson, southwest Ukraine, the only regional capital to have changed hands during the invasion so far, several thousand people demonstrated on the main square on Saturday.
“Kherson is Ukraine,” they chanted, demanding that Russian forces withdraw.
Ukraine’s military said its armed forces were “fighting fiercely to liberate Ukrainian cities from Russian occupiers”, while Russia’s defence ministry claimed its soldiers had taken several towns and villages and shot down four Ukrainian fighter jets near Zhytomyr – about 60 miles west of Kyiv – although those reports could not be verified.
The UN human rights office said on Saturday that at least 351 civilians had been confirmed killed and 707 injured in Ukraine so far, while warning that the real figures were likely to be “considerably higher”.
The UN security council has scheduled an open meeting for Monday on the worsening humanitarian situation, amid warnings that 12 million people in the country will need aid in the coming months while up to 4 million others are expected to flee abroad.
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