Russia and Ukraine failed to make a breakthrough on Thursday in their first top-level talks since the invasion of Moscow two weeks ago, as the Russian advance fueled fears that the Ukrainian capital Kiev would soon be surrounded.
After conversations with Russian counterpart Turkey’s Sergei Lavrov, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, said “no progress” had been made even with a 24-hour ceasefire, although Lavrov said Moscow would continue to talk.
Russian forces surrounded at least four major cities in Ukraine on Thursday, with armored vehicles rolling toward the northeastern edge of the capital Kiev.
Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko said half the population had fled, adding that the city “has been transformed into a fortress. Every street, every building, every checkpoint has been reinforced.”
The besieged southern port city of Mariupol, meanwhile, was attacked again the day after the bombing of a children’s hospital that local officials said had killed three people, including a young girl.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said it was a Russian “war crime”, a position supported by top European Union officials.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the “intensification” of attacking civilians could lead Washington and its European allies to step up already unprecedented sanctions against Moscow.
However, the Russian military claimed that the hospital bombing was a “staged provocation” by Ukraine.
At least 35,000 civilians were evacuated from the cities of Sumy, Enerhodar and areas around Kiev on Wednesday, Zelensky said.
About 2,000 people left the eastern city of Izyum on Thursday, the deputy head of Zelensky’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, wrote on Telegram.
The situation in Mariupol is particularly dire, with ten days of constant attacks that killed more than 1,200 civilians, according to the mayor.
The UN estimates that more than 2.3 million refugees have left Ukraine since Russia shocked the world on February 24 by invading its pro-Western neighbor.
– ‘Barbarian’ hospital attack –
The White House denounced the “barbaric” use of violence against civilians, while EU foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell Zelensky echoed by calling the hospital attack a “horrific war crime”.
In all, at least 71 children have been killed and more than 100 injured in Ukraine since the war started, said Lyudmyla Denisova, the head of the Ukrainian parliament on human rights.
Zelensky shared images of mass destruction at the hospital on Wednesday, saying the “direct attack by Russian troops” had left children under the wreckage.
The United Nations said two other Ukrainian maternity hospitals had been attacked and destroyed before the attack on Mariupol.
The city council on Thursday reported new Russian airstrikes on residential buildings in Mariupol, which aid groups say face an “apocalyptic” situation, with no water, power or heating for more than a week.
Russia’s foreign ministry did not deny the attack on the hospital on Wednesday, but accused Ukrainian “nationalist battalions” of using it to set up firing positions after moving staff and patients.
Lavrov repeated the allegation on Thursday, but Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov then blamed Kiev.
“Russian aviation has conducted absolutely no missions to hit targets on the ground in the Mariupol area,” Konashenkov said.
“The alleged airstrike is a completely staged provocation to perpetuate the anti-Russian hype for a Western audience.”
When asked by a Turkish reporter whether Russia intended to attack other countries, Lavrov replied “we do not intend to attack other countries” and claimed that “we did not attack Ukraine”.
He insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin launch the operation because the situation in Ukraine “posed a direct threat to the Russian Federation”.
– ‘Nowhere to run to’ –
On the northeastern outskirts of Kiev, Ukrainian soldiers described a night of fierce fighting for control of the main road leading to the capital.
An AFP team witnessed rocket attacks in Velyka Dymerka, a village just outside the city limits of Kiev.
Ukrainian troops were minimally present in the village, which locals say witnessed heavy fighting at night.
“It’s scary, but what can you do, there’s nowhere really to run or hide. We live here,” said Vasyl Popov, a 38-year-old ad salesman.
Across Ukraine, the invasion has so far destroyed about $100 billion worth of roads, bridges and businesses, said Oleg Ustenko, Zelensky’s chief economic adviser.
The conflict has raised fears of a nuclear accident in a country with major nuclear power plants and the site of the Chernobyl disaster.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Wednesday it has seen “no critical security impact” at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, after a power outage there.
But it warned it received no updates from Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhya, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which is now also under Russian control.
The United States, meanwhile, rejected Russian claims that it was involved in bioweapons research in Ukraine, warning that Russia could be preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in war.
– Chelsea owner targeted –
Washington has strongly supported Ukraine, led the way in pushing for tough international sanctions, and sent arms and other aid.
But it has ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone and rejected a Polish plan to transfer fighter jets through a US air base for fear of being directly involved in the conflict.
On Thursday, Lavrov said the EU and other countries’ supply of deadly weapons to Ukraine “posed a colossal danger to itself”.
The US House of Representatives has given the green light to a spending package, including nearly $14 billion for Ukraine and allies in Eastern Europe, to be approved by the Senate.
The International Monetary Fund has now approved a $1.4 billion emergency package for Kiev to provide “critical financial support”.
Western sanctions have targeted the Russian financial system and its oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, who was hit on Thursday by an asset freeze and a travel ban in the UK.
Treasury Secretary Yellen said on Thursday that the US and its allies are considering further sanctions because “the atrocities they are perpetrating against civilians appear to be intensifying”.
The United States this week imposed a ban on Russian oil and gas imports, followed by Canada and a promise from London to end imports within the year.
Britain urged the entire G7 to follow suit, but some countries are wary, with Germany and Italy both depending on Russian energy.
Putin said on Thursday that Moscow will continue to export oil and gas, including through Ukraine.
But he warned that food prices will rise due to sanctions, as Moscow is one of the world’s largest fertilizer producers.