LVIV, Ukraine (AP): Ukraine’s president said Russia is trying to starve his country’s cities into submission but warned Saturday that continuing the invasion would exact a toll on Russia for “generations.” The remarks came after Moscow held a mass rally in support of its bogged-down forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the Kremlin in an overnight video address of deliberately creating “a humanitarian catastrophe ” and appealed again for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet with him to prevent more bloodshed.
Noting that the 200,000 people reported to have attended the rally was similar to the number of Russian forces deployed to Ukraine, Zelenskyy said Friday’s event in Moscow illustrated the stakes of the largest ground conflict in Europe since World War II.
“Picture for yourself that in that stadium in Moscow there are 14,000 dead bodies and tens of thousands more injured and maimed,” the Ukrainian leader said, standing outside the presidential office in the capital, Kyiv. “Those are the Russian costs throughout the invasion.”
Putin lavished praise on his country’s military forces during Friday’s flag-waving rally, which took place on the anniversary of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The event 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.”
“We have not had unity like this for a long time,” Putin told the cheering crowd.
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” and insisted his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide” — an idea flatly rejected by leaders around the globe.
The rally took place as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home. Russian police have detained thousands of antiwar protesters.
Fighting raged on multiple fronts in Ukraine more than three weeks after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. U.N. bodies have confirmed more than 800 civilian deaths since the war began but say the real toll is considerably higher. The U.N. says more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees.
The northwest Kyiv suburbs of Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin and Moshchun were under fire on Saturday, the Kyiv regional administration reported. The city of Slavutich, located 165 kilometers (103 miles) north of the capital was “completely isolated,” the administration said.
In the besieged port city of Mariupol, the site of some of the war’s greatest suffering, Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant, one of the biggest in Europe, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Saturday.
“One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” Denysenko said in televised remarks.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol’s defenders were already engaged in battle against “the overwhelming force of the enemy” or at least 100 kilometers (60 miles) away — or both.
“There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” he said late Friday. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”
The Russian military said Saturday that it has used its latest hypersonic missile for the first time in combat. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Kinzhal missiles destroyed an underground warehouse storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine.
Russia has said the Kinzhal, carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, has a range of up to 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles) and flies at 10 times the speed of sound.
A Ukrainian military official confirmed a Friday missile strike on a military warehouse in the region but told a newspaper that authorities have not yet verified the type of missile used.
Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish 10 humanitarian corridors for bringing aid in and residents out — one from Mariupol and several around Kyiv and in the eastern Luhansk region, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Saturday.
She also announced plans to deliver humanitarian aid to the southern city of Kherson, which was seized by Russian forces.
In a separate development, Norway said four U.S. service members died in a plane crash during NATO drills in that country’s north. The annual exercise is unrelated to the war in Ukraine.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskyy said Russian forces were blockading the largest cities with the goal of creating such miserable conditions that Ukrainians will surrender. But he warned that Russia would pay the ultimate price.
“The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s costs will be so high that you will not be able to rise again for several generations,” he said.
The two sides have held several rounds of negotiations but remain divided over Ukraine’s future status, with Russia pressing for its neighbor’s demilitarization and Kyiv demanding security guarantees.
In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, Putin said Ukraine was trying to “drag the negotiations by making a series of new, unrealistic proposals,” according to the Kremlin.
Britain’s foreign minister, meanwhile, accused Putin of using the talks as a “smokescreen” while his forces regroup. “We don’t see any serious withdrawal of Russian troops or any serious proposals on the table,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the Times of London newspaper.
The British Department of Defense said in its latest intelligence assessment that the Kremlin “has been surprised by the scale and ferocity of Ukrainian resistance” and “is now pursuing a strategy of attrition” that is likely to involve indiscriminate attacks.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a Saturday visit to NATO ally Bulgaria, said the Russian invasion had “stalled on a number of fronts” but the U.S. had not yet seen signs that Putin was deploying additional forces.
Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked.
At least 130 people survived the Wednesday bombing of a Mariupol theater that was being used a shelter, but another 1,300 were believed to be still inside, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday.
“We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them,” Denisova told Ukrainian television.
Satellite images on Friday from Maxar Technologies showed a long line of cars leaving Mariupol as people tried to evacuate. Zelenskyy said more than 9,000 people were able to leave in the past day along a route that leads 227 kilometers (141 miles) away to the city of Zaporizhzhia.
The governor of the Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, announced a 38-hour curfew in the southeastern city after two missile strikes on its suburbs killed nine people Friday.
The Russian forces fired at eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region in the past 24 hours, including Mariupol, Ukraine’s National Police said in a statement Saturday.
The attacks with rockets and heavy artillery killed and wounded dozens of civilians, and damaged at least 37 residential buildings and facilities, including a school, a museum and a shopping center, it said.
In a show of defiance against the Russian invasion, Kyiv residents gathered in the sunshine Friday to arrange some 1.5 million tulips in the shape of Ukraine’s coat of arms in a central square. They said the flowers will be distributed in hospitals later to cheer up patients.
“We are continuing to live our lives as we do in peaceful times,” Oleksandr Malykhin, one of the participating residents. “Children and grandchildren must be happy for the coming of spring, to breathe freely. We feel confident and we are not afraid.”