Russia has given Ukrainians an ultimatum to surrender and leave the besieged city of Mariupol by Monday morning, an offer Kyiv swiftly rejected.
Moscow’s Defense Ministry said it will open humanitarian corridors to allow non-armed civilians and personnel to escape the bombarded city between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday if Ukrainian troops lay down their arms.
Russia gave Mariupol’s defenders until 5 a.m. local time to respond to the offer.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk shot down the ultimatum and the possibility of surrender hours after it was announced.
“There can be no talk of any surrender, laying down of arms. We have already informed the Russian side about this,” she told the news outlet Ukrainian Pravda. “I wrote: ‘Instead of wasting time on eight pages of letters, just open the corridor.'”
Previous bids to allow residents to evacuate Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities have failed or have been only partially successful, with Russian bombardments continuing as civilians sought to flee.
Russian Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, who serves as director of Russia’s National Center for Defense Management had said in a statement that “a terrible humanitarian catastrophe has developed” in Mariupol.
“All who lay down their arms are guaranteed safe passage out of Mariupol,” the Russian general said, suggesting this would also apply to Ukrainian service members.
The statement did not say what action Russia would take if its “humanitarian offer” was rejected.
The Russian ultimatum came amid reports of the port city suffering one of the most brutal sieges in modern history.
Mariupol authorities say nearly 10 percent of the city’s population of 430,000 have fled over the past week, risking their lives in convoys out.
Ukrainian authorities said Sunday that Russia’s military bombed an art school sheltering about 400 people in Mariupol, and tearful evacuees from the devastated port city described how “battles took place over every street,” weeks into the siege.
As one local described it, “There is no city anymore.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack on the school an act of “terror,” as authorities in Mariupol said people remained trapped “under the rubble.”
“Russian forces have come to exterminate us, to kill us,” Zelensky said.
The fall of Mariupol would allow Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine to link up and take control of Ukraine’s coast along the Sea of Azov.
But Western military analysts said that even if the surrounded city is taken, the troops battling a block at a time for control there may be too depleted to help secure Russian breakthroughs on other fronts.
Three weeks into the invasion, Western governments and analysts see the conflict shifting to a war of attrition, with bogged down Russian forces launching long-range missiles at cities and military bases as Ukrainian forces carry out hit-and-run attacks and seek to sever Russia’s supply lines.
Earlier Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russia and Ukraine have made progress on their negotiations to halt the invasion and are “close to an agreement.”
Zelensky said on Sunday that he was willing to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and warned that if attempts at diplomacy fail, last month’s invasion of his country could prove to be the trigger for a third world war.
“I’m ready for negotiations with him. I was ready for the last two years. And I think that without negotiations, we cannot end this war,” he told CNN. “If there’s just a 1% chance for us to stop this war, I think that we need to take this chance. We need to do that.”
“Dialogue is the only way out,” Zelensky said. “I think it’s just the two of us, me and Putin, who can make an agreement on this.”
From Guernica to Mariupol
Mariupol has been one of the worst-hit cities.
“Yesterday, the Russian occupiers dropped bombs on art school No 12” where 400 women, children and elderly people were sheltering, destroying the building, the Mariupol city council said on Telegram Sunday.
It was the latest potentially devastating strike on a shelter for civilians. Last Wednesday, a theatre where more than 1,000 people had sheltered was hit, with hundreds still presumed missing in the rubble.
Thousands of civilians are thought to be trapped inside the city without water, electricity or gas.
A Greek diplomat who remained in Mariupol during some of the bombardment said Sunday the destruction there would rank alongside the world’s most ruinous wartime assaults.
“Mariupol will be included in a list of cities in the world that were completely destroyed by the war, such as Guernica, Stalingrad, Grozny, Aleppo,” Manolis Androulakis said after flying back to Athens.
City authorities also claimed that more than 1,000 Mariupol residents had been forcibly taken to Russia.
“The occupiers are sending the residents of Mariupol to filtration camps, checking their phones and seizing [their] Ukrainian documents,” said local official Pavlo Kyrylenko.
A group of children stuck in a Mariupol clinic had been taken to Russian-controlled Donetsk, a carer and a relative of a clinic worker told AFP.
Russia said Saturday it had broken through Mariupol’s defenses and its troops were inside.
Elsewhere, Russian forces — stymied by unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance, and reportedly facing shortages of weapons and supplies — have made increasing use of long-range missiles.
Russia’s defense ministry said Sunday that Moscow had again fired its newest Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile, destroying a fuel depot in the southern Mykolaiv region.
A day earlier, Russia said it had used the sophisticated weapon to destroy an arms depot near Ukraine’s border with Romania.
The Pentagon, however, played down the claim, saying that the weapon was not a “game changer.”
In Kyiv, where Russian forces are trying to encircle the capital, a shell exploded outside a ten-story apartment block, injuring five people.
In Chernigiv, which is already encircled, Mayor Vladislav Atroshenko said Sunday that dozens of civilians had been killed after shelling hit a hospital.
Humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate in the mostly Russian-speaking south and east, where Russian forces have been pressing their advance, as well as in the north around Kyiv.
Aid agencies are struggling to reach people trapped in besieged cities, where the UN says the situation is “dire.”
Around 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, roughly one-third going abroad, the UN refugee agency said.
They are fleeing fighting that, according to Zelensky, has left around 14,000 Russian servicemen dead, a number that “will only continue to rise.” Western estimates of Russian casualties are far lower — around 7,000 fatalities as of Friday.
Russia has not provided a death toll since early March, when it said nearly 500 servicemen had been killed. Ukrainian officials said on March 12 that some 1,300 Ukrainian troops had died.
Ukraine has not been providing a civilian toll, except for children, saying at least 115 have now perished.
As the body count climbed, Turkey, which has strong ties to both Russia and Ukraine, said the parties were making progress in talks.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Turkish media the sides were negotiating Ukraine’s neutrality, disarmament and security guarantees, so-called “de-Nazification,” the status of the Russian language, the breakaway Donbas region and annexed Crimea.
Turkey has also said it is ready to host a meeting between Zelensky and Putin.
But the Ukrainian leader appeared to draw some red lines.
“You cannot just demand from Ukraine to recognize some territories as independent republics,” he told CNN. “We have to come up with a model where Ukraine will not lose its sovereignty.”
Russia’s ally China has walked a cautious line, calling for peace talks but refraining from denouncing Moscow.
China’s ambassador to the US on Sunday denied that his country was sending weapons to Russia for the war, days after US President Joe Biden warned Beijing not to do so.
“What China is doing is sending food, medicine, sleeping bags and baby formula, not weapons and ammunition,” Ambassador Qin Gang told CBS, while making no promises about the future.
Lasting economic effects
Russia’s war has sparked an unprecedented wave of Western sanctions against Putin, his entourage and Russian companies.
France said Sunday it had seized 850 million euros ($920 million) of Russian oligarchs’ assets on its soil.
The war has sparked turmoil for an already vulnerable world economy. Russia is a major exporter of oil, gas and commodities, while Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat.
Commodity prices have rocketed, further fueling high inflation, the chief economist with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development told AFP.
“Even if the war stopped today, the consequences of this conflict would be felt for months to come,” Beata Javorcik said.