Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for talks with Vladimir Putin on Saturday, saying they were the “only chance for Russia to minimize the damage done with their own mistakes” after invading.
The two sides are currently holding negotiations remotely but so far, like previous rounds, they have yielded little progress. None have been at the presidential level.
“This is the time to meet, to talk, time for renewing territorial integrity and fairness for Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video posted to Facebook. “I want to be heard by everyone, especially in Moscow.”
“Otherwise, Russia’s losses will be such, that several generations will not recover.”
Several rounds of negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow have taken place both in-person and virtually since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
The latest set of talks, the fourth, opened on Monday.
Russia’s top negotiator said Friday that Moscow and Kyiv had brought their positions “as close as possible” on a proposal for Ukraine to become a neutral state.
But Mikhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky taking part in the negotiations, said his country’s position had not budged.
“Negotiation status. The statements of the Russian side are only their requesting positions,” he wrote on Twitter.
“All statements are intended, inter alia, to provoke tension in the media. Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, withdrawal of troops & strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.”
Russia, which has been conducting a military operation in Ukraine since February 24, has requested that its neighbor never join the Western NATO military alliance, as well as demanding its “demilitarisation” and “denazification.”
Zelensky noted that the 200,000 people Putin gathered in and around a Moscow stadium on Friday for a flag-waving rally was about the same number of Russian troops sent into Ukraine three weeks ago.
Zelensky then asked his audience to picture the stadium filled with the thousands of Russians who have been killed, wounded or maimed in the fighting.
Zelensky said Russian forces were blockading Ukraine’s largest cities to create a “humanitarian catastrophe” with the aim of persuading Ukrainians to cooperate with them.
He said Russians are preventing supplies from reaching surrounded cities in the center and southeast of the country.
“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelensky said in his nighttime video address to the nation, filmed outside in Kyiv, with the presidential office in the lamplight behind him.
He said more than 9,000 people were able to leave besieged Mariupol in the past day, and in all more than 180,000 people have been able to flee to safety through humanitarian corridors.
There was still no information about the number of people who had died when a theatre in the city sheltering civilians was bombed, he said.
He accused Russian forces of blocking aid around hotspot areas, saying “they have a strict order to do everything, so the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukrainian cities turned into reason for Ukrainians to work together with the occupiers.”
“This is a war crime!” he added.
Zelensky also asserted Ukrainian forces had halted the Russian offensive “in almost all directions.”
“The initial plan of the Russian military to seize our state failed,” he said.
His comments came as fighting has reached the center of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko told The BBC, “They were really active today. Tanks and machine-gun battles continue.”
“Everybody is hiding in bunkers.”
Over 80% of residential buildings are damaged or destroyed, he said.
“There’s no city center left. There isn’t a small piece of land in the city that doesn’t have signs of war,” he says.
The rescue effort at the city’s theater, where hundreds are believed trapped, was ongoing.
The city lies at a strategic point between two Russian-controlled regions on the Sea of Azov, putting it in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.
Meanwhile, satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies showed Russian forces building berms around military vehicles and equipment northwest of Kyiv.
British intelligence earlier Friday said Russia was shifting tactics toward a war of attrition since its plan to overrun Ukraine quickly has faltered.
NEW: Russian forces are using earthworks to conceal troops and armored vehicles from Ukrainian attacks just miles from Kyiv.
Britain's Defense Intel Agency said this week that Russian forces were trying to reset in an effort to renew offensives that had stalled.
— Jack Detsch (@JackDetsch) March 18, 2022
Other images show destruction in Ukrainian cities in Mariupol and civilians evacuating in cars.
New satellite images of Mariupol show more of the destruction wrought by indiscriminate Russian bombing. Massive chunks of civilian homes blown apart are clearly visible. Cloud cover prevented images of destroyed drama theater. 3rd image shows line of cars evacuating. ????: @Maxar pic.twitter.com/s9Rd0VR8Dy
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) March 18, 2022
As Russian troops rained lethal fire on Ukrainian cities, Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge flag-waving rally to lavish praise on his Russian forces.
Russia’s president addressed the packed Moscow stadium Friday, saying the Kremlin’s troops had fought “shoulder to shoulder” and supported each other. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he told the cheering crowd.
The invasion has touched off a burst of antiwar protests inside Russia, and the rally was surrounded by suspicions it was a Kremlin-manufactured display of patriotism. The event happened as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home.
Police said more than 200,000 people were in and around the Luzhniki stadium for the Moscow event, which included patriotic songs such as “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”
Several Telegram channels critical of the Kremlin reported that students and employees of state institutions in a number of regions were ordered by their superiors to attend rallies and concerts marking the eighth anniversary of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine. Those reports could not be independently verified.
Seeking to portray the war as just, Putin paraphrased the Bible to say of Russia’s troops: “There is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends.”
Taking to the stage where a sign read “For a world without Nazism,” he railed against his foes in Ukraine with a baseless claim that they are “neo-Nazis.” Putin continued to insist his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide” — an idea flatly rejected by leaders around the globe.
Video feeds of the event cut out at times but showed a loudly cheering crowd that broke into chants of “Russia!”
Putin’s appearance marked a change from his relative isolation of recent weeks, when he has been shown meeting with world leaders and his staff either at extraordinarily long tables or via videoconference.
In the wake of the invasion, the Kremlin has clamped down harder on dissent and the flow of information, arresting thousands of antiwar protesters, banning sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and instituting tough prison sentences for what is deemed to be false reporting on the war, which Moscow refers to as a “special military operation.”
The rally unfolded as Vladimir Medinsky, who led Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, said the two sides have moved closer to agreement on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status. In remarks carried by Russian media, he said the sides are now “halfway” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine.
Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, characterized the Russian assessment as intended “to provoke tension in the media.” He tweeted: “Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, withdrawal of troops & strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.”
British Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull warned that after failing to take major Ukrainian cities, Russian forces are shifting to a “strategy of attrition” that will entail “reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower,” resulting in higher civilian casualties and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked. Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said at least 130 people had survived Wednesday’s bombing of a Mariupol theater that was being used a shelter.
“But according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in these basements, in this bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them.”
Satellite images on Friday from Maxar Technologies showed a long line of cars leaving Mariupol as people tried to evacuate. Zelensky said more than 9,000 people were able to leave the city in the past day.
One person was reported killed in the missile attack near Lviv. Satellite photos showed the strike destroyed a repair hangar and appeared to damage two other buildings. Ukraine said it shot down two of six missiles in the volley, which came from the Black Sea.
That early morning attack was the closest strike yet to the center of Lviv, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or join the fight. The war has swelled the city’s population by some 200,000.
Early morning barrages also hit a residential building in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv, killing at least one person, according to emergency services, who said 98 people were evacuated from the building. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said 19 were wounded in the shelling.
Ukrainian officials said a fireman was also killed when Russian forces shelled an area where firefighters were trying to put out a blaze in the village of Nataevka, in the Zaporizhzhia region. Two others were killed when strikes hit residential and administrative buildings in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to the regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Maj. Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk, who is leading the defense of the region around Ukraine’s capital, said his forces are well-positioned to defend the city and vowed: “We will never give up. We will fight until the end. To the last breath and to the last bullet.”