Ukraine is still fighting to retain control of its strategic southeastern port of Mariupol, after rejecting a Russian ultimatum to surrender a city where the top diplomats of Germany and the European Union said Moscow’s forces had committed war crimes.
Ukrainian officials accused Russian troops of injuring four children when they shelled the cars of families fleeing Mariupol on Monday, as rescue workers in Kyiv searched the ruins of a shopping centre for survivors of a Russian missile strike that killed at least eight people.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to meet for talks to end nearly four weeks of all-out war, but the Kremlin said no meeting was on the horizon and Moscow warned Kyiv’s ally Washington that Russia-US ties were now “on the brink of collapse”.
“The heroic defenders of Mariupol have played a big role in destroying the enemy’s plans,” Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Monday, hours after his country’s forces ignored Russia’s dawn ultimatum to stop fighting in the city.
“Today, Mariupol is saving Kyiv, Dnipro and Odesa,” he added, referring to Ukraine’s capital and two other major cities that may now have been in grave danger had the industrial port on the Azov Sea not repelled almost a month of Russian attacks.
Local officials say Russian missile and artillery barrages have badly damaged most of the city’s residential areas, and Ukraine has accused the Kremlin’s troops of bombing a theatre and a school where hundreds of people were taking shelter. Moscow insists that it does not fire on civilian targets.
“What’s happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Brussels.
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said she believed Russia’s repeated attacks on civilian targets were “clearly and unequivocally war crimes”.
“It makes it all the more clear that we, as the European Union, that we as the world community who believe in a rules-based international order, must clearly isolate this regime,” she added.
Some 300,000 people are still believed to be trapped in Mariupol without supplies of food, water and power or phone and internet links, and Russia continued to prevent humanitarian aid reaching the city after Ukraine rejected its demand to surrender.
Russia has failed to take any of Ukraine’s biggest cities and its ground forces appear to be making little headway in an invasion that began on February 24th, but missiles and shells are now landing closer to the centre of Kyiv, where on Sunday night a rocket destroyed a shopping centre that Moscow said was being used as a weapons store.
The Kremlin said on Monday that “no significant progress” had been made in tentative peace talks with Kyiv, and the Russian foreign ministry said relations with Washington were close to collapse due to “unacceptable” comments from US president Joe Biden, who recently called Mr Putin a “war criminal” and “a murderous dictator, a pure thug”.