Putin likens Western sanctions to war as Russia’s Ukraine offensive traps civilians

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  • Putin says he wants to ‘demilitarize’ Ukraine
  • Russia and Ukraine blame each other for evacuation problems
  • Up to 1.5 million refugees are expected by Sunday night
  • US State Department blinking in Poland for crisis talks
  • NATO says ‘no’ to no-fly zones over Ukraine

LVIV/Kyiv, Ukraine, March 5 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday said Western sanctions were war-like as his forces continued their assault on Ukraine, where planned civilian evacuations from two besieged cities were called off.

Russia and Ukraine traded blame for failing to allow safe passage for civilians fleeing the two bombed cities on the 10th day of a war that has unleashed Europe’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe in decades.

The war, which began with Russia’s February 24 invasion, has sent nearly 1.5 million refugees west to the European Union, provoking unprecedented international sanctions against Moscow and warnings of a global recession.

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The Russian Defense Ministry said its units had opened humanitarian corridors near the towns of Mariupol and Volnovakha, which were encircled by its troops.

But in Mariupol, the city council said Russia is not honoring the ceasefire and urged residents to return to the shelters and await more information about the evacuation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it understood evacuations of civilians from both Mariupol and Volnovakha would not start now on Saturday.

The Russian Defense Ministry has accused Ukrainian “nationalists” of preventing civilians from leaving the country, the RIA news agency reported.

The southeastern port was heavily bombed, a sign of its strategic value to Moscow given its position between Russian separatist-held eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

“That night the shelling was harder and closer,” said a MSF worker, according to the aid organization. There was still a lack of electricity, water, heating, mobile phone connections and food was scarce.

The Ukrainian government had announced that it would evacuate around 200,000 people from Mariupol and 15,000 from Volnovakha.

HUMANITARIAN DISASTER

Russia’s Defense Ministry said a broad offensive is continuing in Ukraine, where it denies targeting or invading civilians and describes its actions as a “special military operation.”

Russian forces carried out attacks on military infrastructure and forces from separatist-held Donetsk tightened the encirclement of Mariupol, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

Aid organizations across the country have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe. The head of the United Nations refugee agency said the number of refugees could increase from the current 1.3 million to 1.5 million by the end of the weekend.

Women and children crossed the Medyka border crossing in south-eastern Poland in freezing temperatures. A man crossing the other path shouted at the crowd for the men to return to Ukraine and fight.

A woman struggling to carry half a dozen bags cried as the snacks she had packed for herself and her young son, who was clutching a green dinosaur toy, fell to the ground. She gave the boy a bag to carry while they slowly trotted on.

Officials in Ukraine have reported thousands of civilians dead and wounded, and Putin’s decision to invade met with global condemnation. The Kremlin leader said on Saturday that Russia wanted Ukraine to be “demilitarized” and “denazified” and that Ukraine should have neutral status.

“These sanctions being imposed are like a declaration of war, but thank God it didn’t come to that,” he said.

Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the West of “economic banditry” and threatened retaliation, without giving details. Continue reading

The conflict has rocked international diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program, one of the few areas where Russia and the United States have worked together to stem what the West believes is an Iranian nuclear weapons development plan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the new Western sanctions against his country have become a stumbling block to reaching a nuclear deal with Iran.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters the Russian stance was unhelpful.

“PLEASE CLOSE THE SKY”

According to Ukraine, Russian forces have focused their efforts on encircling Kyiv and Kharkiv, the second largest city, while aiming to establish a land bridge to Crimea.

Kyiv, on the path of a Russian tank column that had been stuck outside the Ukrainian capital for days, came under renewed attack, with explosions heard from the city centre.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was expected to urge Washington for further aid in a video call with the US Senate at 9:30 a.m. ET (1430 GMT) Saturday.

At a meeting on Friday, NATO allies rejected Ukraine’s appeal for no-fly zones, saying they would increase their support but direct intervention could make the situation worse.

“Please close the sky…because people are dying,” said Solomiya Zdryko, 18, who fled Lviv in western Ukraine. Continue reading

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to top Polish officials about security and humanitarian aid during a visit to Poland. Poland has taken in the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees. Continue reading

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said 66,224 Ukrainian men have returned from abroad to join the fight against the Russian invasion. “Ukrainians, we are invincible,” he said in an online post.

The Ukrainian military said the armed forces “fighted fiercely to liberate Ukrainian cities from Russian occupiers”, attacked in some areas and cut off communications.

“Units of the invaders are demoralized, soldiers and officers of the occupying army continue to surrender, flee, leaving weapons and equipment on Ukrainian soil,” it said, adding that at least 39 Russian planes and 40 helicopters were destroyed.

Russia said it destroyed 82 Ukrainian planes, 708 armored vehicles, 74 multiple rocket launchers and 56 drones.

Reuters was unable to independently verify such accounts from either side.

Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south, where they captured their first major Ukrainian city, Kherson, this week.

On Saturday, a crowd marched through the streets of the city of 250,000, waving Ukrainian flags and shouting: “Kherson is Ukrainian!” as Russian troops stood by.

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Coverage by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, Matthias Williams in Medyka, Guy Faulconbridge and William Schomberg in London, John Irish in Paris, Francois Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and others Reuters- Offices of Kim Coghill and Philippa Fletcher. Edited by William Mallard, Frances Kerry and Gareth Jones

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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