No breakthrough in Ukraine talks as Russian forces advance on Kyiv

Russia and Ukraine failed to make a breakthrough Thursday in their first top-level talks since Moscow’s invasion two weeks ago, as Russian advances sparked fears the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv could soon be encircled.

After talks with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Turkey, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said there had been “no progress,” even on a 24-hour cease-fire, although Lavrov said Moscow would keep talking.

Russian forces were encircling at least four major cities in Ukraine on Thursday, with armored vehicles rolling up to the northeastern edge of Kyiv.

Kyiv 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 fortified.”

The besieged southern port city of Mariupol, meanwhile, came under fresh attack, the day after the bombing of a children’s hospital that local officials said killed three people, including a young girl.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was a Russian “war crime,” a position backed by top European Union officials.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the “intensifying” targeting of civilians could see Washington and its European allies step up already unprecedented sanctions on Moscow.

The Russian Army however claimed the hospital bombing was a “staged provocation” by Ukraine.

More than 80,000 people have been evacuated in two days, the Ukrainian government said on Thursday. They managed to leave areas around the northeastern city of Sumy, places to the northwest of Kyiv and the eastern city of Izyum.

Moscow late Thursday said it would also open daily humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians to Russian territory, but Kyiv has insisted no evacuation routes should lead to Russia.

Families fleeing the conflict in Ukraine cross the border into Poland on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Families fleeing the conflict in Ukraine cross the border into Poland on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

The situation in Mariupol is particularly dire, with 10 days of constant attacks having left more than 1,200 civilians dead, according to the mayor.

The U.N. estimates more than 2.3 million refugees have left Ukraine since Russia shocked the world by invading its pro-Western neighbor on Feb. 24.

The White House slammed the “barbaric” use of force against civilians, while EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell echoed Zelenskyy in calling the hospital attack a “heinous war crime.”

Overall, at least 71 children have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war, and more than 100 have been wounded, said Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukraine parliament’s point person on human rights.

Zelenskyy shared footage on Wednesday of massive destruction at the hospital, saying the “direct strike by Russian troops” had left children under the wreckage.

The United Nations said that two other Ukrainian maternity hospitals had been attacked and destroyed before the strike on Mariupol.

The city council reported new Russian air attacks Thursday on residential buildings in Mariupol, which aid agencies say is facing an “apocalyptic” situation, with no water, power or heat for more than a week.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said some people had started fighting for food in the city, and many had run out of drinking water.

Russia has claimed the maternity hospital was sheltering Ukrainian “nationalist battalions.”

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov has said there were no Russian airstrikes in the area, and described the incident as a “staged provocation” to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

Asked by a Turkish reporter if Russia was planning to attack other nations, Lavrov replied “we don’t plan to attack other countries” and claimed “we did not attack Ukraine”.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the operation as the situation in Ukraine “posed a direct threat to the Russian Federation.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, failed to make any progress in high-level talks in Turkey on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, failed to make any progress in high-level talks in Turkey on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

On the northeastern edge of Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers described a night of heavy battles for control of the main highway leading into the capital.

An AFP team witnessed missile strikes in Velyka Dymerka, a village just outside Kyiv’s city limits.

Ukrainian forces only had a minimal presence in the village, which locals said witnessed heavy fighting overnight.

“It’s frightening, but what can you do, there is nowhere to really run or hide. We live here,” said Vasyl Popov, a 38-year-old advertising salesman.

Across Ukraine, the invasion has so far destroyed about $100 billion in roads, bridges and businesses, said Oleg Ustenko, chief economic advisor to Zelensky.

The conflict has raised fears of a nuclear accident in a country with two major nuclear plants under Russian control.

The U.N.’s atomic watchdog said Wednesday it saw “no critical impact on safety” at Chernobyl, location of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, after a loss of power there.

But it warned it was not receiving updates from either Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

The United States, meanwhile, rejected Russian claims that it was involved in bioweapons research in Ukraine, and warned Russia could be preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in the war.

A woman takes shelter in a basement in the city of Irpin, north of Kyiv, on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
A woman takes shelter in a basement in the city of Irpin, north of Kyiv, on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

Washington has strongly backed Ukraine, leading the push for tough international sanctions and sending weapons and other aid.

But it has ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone and rejected a Polish plan to transfer fighter jets via a U.S. air base for fear of being drawn into the conflict directly.

On Thursday, Lavrov said the supply by the EU and other countries of deadly weapons to Ukraine was “creating a colossal danger for themselves.”

The U.S. House of Representatives green-lit a spending package including nearly $14 billion for Ukraine and allies in Eastern Europe, which must be rubber-stamped by the Senate.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has approved a $1.4-billion emergency package for Kyiv.

Western sanctions have targeted Russia’s financial system and its oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, owner of football club Chelsea, who was on Thursday hit by a U.K. assets freeze and travel ban.

The United States this week imposed a ban on Russian imports of oil and gas, a move followed by Canada and a pledge from London to end the imports within the year.

Britain urged the entire Group of Seven to follow suit, but some nations are wary, with Germany and Italy both dependent on Russian energy.

Putin on Thursday said Moscow was continuing to export oil and gas, including through Ukraine.

But he warned food prices will soar because of sanctions since Moscow is one of the world’s top fertilizer producers.

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