Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned his people early on Saturday that retreating Russian forces were creating “a complete disaster” outside the capital as they left mines “all over the territory”, even around houses and businesses. corpses.
He issued the warning as the humanitarian crisis in the beleaguered city of Mariupol worsened, with Russian forces blocking evacuation operations for the second straight day, and the Kremlin blaming the Ukrainians for launching a helicopter attack against a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine has denied responsibility for the blaze, but if Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the first known attack of the war in which Ukrainian planes entered Russian airspace.
“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said five weeks after Moscow began sending more than 150 000 of its own soldiers across the Ukrainian border.
Russia has continued to withdraw some of its ground forces from areas around kyiv after saying earlier this week that it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and the northern city of Chernihiv.
“They are mining the whole territory. These are mining houses, mining equipment, even the bodies of people who were killed,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “There are a lot of trip wires, a lot of other dangers.”
He urged residents to wait to resume their normal lives until they are sure that the mines have been cleared and the danger of shelling has passed.
As the Russians continued their bombardment around kyiv and Chernihiv, Ukrainian troops exploited the retreat on the ground by mounting counterattacks and retaking a number of towns and villages.
Yet Ukraine and its allies have warned that the Kremlin is not despairing of promoting confidence at the negotiating table, as it claims, but is resupplying and moving its troops east of the country. These moves appear to be preparation for an intensified assault on the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region in the east of the country, which includes Mariupol.
Zelenskyy warned of tough battles ahead as the Russians redeploy their troops. “We are preparing for an even more active defence,” he said.
He said nothing about the latest round of talks, which took place on Friday via video. In a round of talks earlier in the week, Ukraine said it would be willing to drop its NATO bid and declare itself neutral – Moscow’s main demand – in exchange for security guarantees from several other countries.
The invasion killed thousands and drove more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine.
Mariupol, the destroyed and besieged southern port city, has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. His capture would be a major prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, giving his country an unbroken land bridge to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The fate of Mariupol could determine the course of negotiations to end the war, said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Ukrainian think tank Penta.
“Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance,” Fesenko said, “and without its conquest, Putin cannot sit at the negotiating table.” The fall of Mariupol, he said, “will pave the way for a peace agreement”.
On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was unable to conduct an operation to bus civilians out of Mariupol. He said a team was on their way but had to turn back.
City authorities said the Russians were blocking access to Mariupol.
“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to give Mariupol residents the opportunity to evacuate to Ukrainian-controlled territory,” Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Telegram messaging app. .
He said Russian forces “categorically do not allow any humanitarian cargo, even small quantities, into the city.”
Around 100,000 people are thought to remain in the city, down from 430,000 before the war, and weeks of Russian bombing and street fighting have caused severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors the people of Mariupol have suffered,” said Red Cross spokesman Ewan Watson.
On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a convoy of 45 buses attempting to evacuate people from Mariupol and seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies bound for the city, Ukrainian authorities said.
Zelenskyy said more than 3,000 people were able to leave Mariupol on Friday. He said he discussed the humanitarian catastrophe with French President Emmanuel Macron by phone and with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola during his visit to Kyiv.
“Europe has no right to remain silent about what is happening in our Mariupol,” Zelenskyy said. “The whole world should react to this humanitarian catastrophe.”
Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired Friday night from the Crimean peninsula at the Odessa region on the Black Sea, regional chief Maksim Marchenko said. The Ukrainian military said the Iskander missiles were intended for critical infrastructure but failed to hit their targets due to the Ukrainian Air Defense Forces. We didn’t know where they had hit. Marchenko said there were casualties, but he did not elaborate.
Odessa is Ukraine’s largest port and the seat of its navy.
Regarding the fuel depot explosion, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that two Ukrainian helicopter gunships flew extremely low and attacked the civilian oil storage facility in the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
The regional governor said two workers at the depot were injured, but state oil company Rosneft denied anyone was hurt.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, told Ukrainian television: “For some reason they say we did it, but in fact it doesn’t correspond to reality.”
Russia has previously reported cross-border bombings from Ukraine, including an incident last week that killed a military chaplain, but not an incursion of its airspace.
Amid the Russian retreat on the ground and its continued shelling, the Ukrainian military said it had recaptured 29 settlements in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.
Russian forces in the northeast also continued to shell Kharkiv, and in the southeast sought to seize the towns of Popasna and Rubizhne as well as Mariupol, the Ukrainian military said.
Meanwhile, Russia began its annual spring conscription on Friday, which aimed to round up 134,500 men for a year-long military tour. Russian officials say new recruits will not be sent to front lines or “hot spots”, but many young Russians are skeptical and fear being drawn into war.
On the outskirts of kyiv, where Russian troops have retreated, wrecked cars lined the streets of Irpin, a suburb popular with young families, now in ruins. Rescuers carried elderly people on stretchers across a destroyed bridge to safety.
Three wooden crosses next to a bomb-damaged apartment building marked the graves of a mother and son and an unknown person. A resident who only gave her name as Lila said she helped bury them hastily on March 5, just before Russian troops arrived.
“They were hit by artillery and they were burned to death,” she said.
An Irpin resident who gave his name only as Andriy said the Russians packed up their gear and left on Tuesday. The next day they shelled the town for almost an hour before Ukrainian soldiers recaptured it.
“I don’t think it’s over,” Andriy said. “They will come back.”