US President Joe Biden on Tuesday banned imports of Russian oil to punish Moscow for invading Ukraine as desperate civilians fled besieged cities and new fighting raged.
Britain said it would also phase out Russian oil by the end of the year and the EU planned to cut gas imports by two-thirds as Western sanctions finally began to hit the economic lifeblood of Russia’s war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has persevered despite unprecedented sanctions, even though Moscow agreed to set up “humanitarian corridors” from four Ukrainian cities on the 13th day of the conflict.
The number of refugees streaming across Ukraine’s borders to flee cities devastated by shelling and airstrikes has passed two million in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, the UN said.
Buses poured out through an evacuation corridor from the northeastern city of Sumy – where 21 people died overnight in air raids – as civilians took an unofficial escape route on foot from the bombed-out Kiev suburb of Irpin.
But Ukraine accused Russia of attacking a corridor from the beleaguered southern port city of Mariupol, where aid workers say tens of thousands were living in “apocalyptic” conditions.
Kiev has labeled the corridors a publicity stunt, as many of the exit routes lead to Russia or its ally Belarus. Both sides accuse each other of ceasefire violations.
Biden said Ukraine would “never be a victory” for Putin when he announced measures targeting the energy sector that supports the Russian economy and its war effort.
The Pentagon estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. Russia said on March 2 that 498 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine.
– ‘Hide in the basement’ –
Russian troops are slowly advancing into Kiev, despite intensive efforts by Ukrainian forces, which can outrun the east and north of the country.
Despite the sound of nearby shelling in Irpin, seen as a critical point for the advance towards the capital, civilians fled in icy winds and thick snowfall, AFP reporters noted.
People waited in a long line to cross the Irpin River on makeshift catwalks made of planks and mangled metal after the Ukrainians blew up the bridge to the capital to impede any Russian advance.
“I didn’t want to leave, but there is no one left in the houses around us, no water, no gas and no electricity,” Larissa Prokopets, 43, told AFP.
She said she left after being “hidden” for several days in the basement of her house, which kept “shaking” from bombing in the area.
Russia had declined calls for a humanitarian corridor in Irpin and the nearby suburbs of Bucha and Gostomel “although we had everything ready for this,” said Anton Gerashchenko, an official with Ukraine’s interior ministry.
However, the evacuations had begun in Sumy, near the Russian border and 350 kilometers (218 miles) east of Kiev, where Russia had formally declared a humanitarian corridor, officials said.
Dozens of buses had already left for Lokhvytsia, in the southwest, with the corridor designed to evacuate civilians, including Chinese, Indians and other foreigners, officials said.
The evacuation came after 21 people, including two children, were killed overnight in Sumy. Three people were killed and three children injured by a land mine in Chernigiv, north of Kiev, officials said.
– ‘Alone, exhausted, scared’ –
Ukraine’s defense ministry also accused Russia on Tuesday of violating a ceasefire to relieve a days-long blockade of Mariupol, describing it as “genocide”.
A six-year-old girl, identified only as Tanya, died of dehydration under the rubble of her ruined home in Mariupol, the city council said.
“In the last minutes of her life she was alone, exhausted, scared and terribly thirsty,” said Mayor Vadym Boychenko.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced what he called the West’s failed promises to protect his country, and renewed calls for a no-fly zone that leaders have so far rejected.
“It’s been 13 days since we’ve heard promises, 13 days we’ve been told that we will be helped in the air, that there will be planes,” Zelensky said in a video broadcast on Telegram.
Global outrage grew over the invasion and the plight of civilians ensnared by the bloodshed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the residents of Mariupol were facing “horrific” conditions and that they were out of food, water and medical supplies.
“The bottom line today is that this situation is really apocalyptic for people,” ICRC head of media Ewan Watson said in Geneva.
At least 474 civilians have been killed since the start of the Russian attack on its ex-Soviet neighbor, the UN says, although the UN believes the actual numbers are “significantly higher”.
– suspension premier league –
The attack has created a massive refugee crisis for European countries that have taken in Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, especially Poland.
“It doesn’t stop,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, when he announced that two million people had fled.
Russia has warned that oil sanctions would have “catastrophic consequences”.
But the United States has led the way in pushing for energy sanctions — in part because Russia accounts for less than 10 percent of U.S. imports of oil and petroleum products, meaning the impact on the world’s largest economy would be easier to bear. .
Biden said the ban was decided “in close consultation” with allies, especially those in Europe, which depend on Russia for 40 percent of their gas needs.
The European Commission said it wanted to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds, while Britain said it would cut oil imports in line with the United States.
Pressure on business and sports has increased to cut ties with Moscow as well.
The Premier League announced it would suspend its deal with its Russian broadcasting partner, while oil giant Shell said it would immediately withdraw from Russian oil and gas.
But the West has so far stayed out of the no-fly zone demanded by Zelensky, with Putin warning it would be considered “participation in the conflict” with nuclear-armed Russia.
Putin has equated sanctions with a declaration of war and put nuclear forces on readiness. He has promised the “denazification” of Ukraine and demands its “neutralization” and demilitarization.
Domestically, Russia has cracked down on dissent, arresting more than 10,000 people for anti-war protests and cracking down on independent media.