With the Kremlin’s rhetoric growing fiercer and a reprieve from fighting dissolving, Russian troops continued to shell encircled cities and the number of Ukrainians forced from their country grew to 1.4 million.
By night-time on Saturday, Russian forces had intensified their shelling of Mariupol, while dropping powerful bombs on residential areas of Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv, Ukrainian officials said.
But Eduard Basurin, head of the military in separatist-held Donetsk territory, said safe passage corridors for residents of two cities in the region – Mariupol and Volnovakha – will be open again on Sunday.
He did not give any details on how long the corridors would remain open, nor whether there would be a ceasefire to facilitate the evacuation of the two cities.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the ongoing resistance is putting Ukrainian statehood in jeopardy and he likened the West’s sanctions on Russia to “declaring war”.
He continued to pin the blame for the war squarely on the Ukrainian leadership and slammed their resistance to the invasion.
“If they continue to do what they are doing, they are calling into question the future of Ukrainian statehood,” he said on Saturday. “And if this happens, it will be entirely on their conscience.”
He also hit out at Western sanctions that have crippled Russia’s economy and sent the value of its currency tumbling.
“These sanctions that are being imposed, they are akin to declaring war. But thank God, we haven’t got there yet.”
Russia’s financial system suffered yet another blow late on Saturday as Mastercard and Visa announced they were suspending operations in the country.
A third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine will take place Monday, according to Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation. He gave no additional details, including where they would take place.
Previous meetings were held in Belarus and led to the failed ceasefire agreement to create humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of children, women and older people from besieged cities, where pharmacies have run bare, hundreds of thousands face food and water shortages, and the injured have been succumbing to their wounds.
Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of residents had gathered for safe passage out of the city of 430,000 on Saturday when shelling began and the evacuation was stopped. Later in the day, he said the attack had escalated further.
“The city is in a very, very difficult state of siege,” he told Ukrainian TV. “Relentless shelling of residential blocks is ongoing, airplanes have been dropping bombs on residential areas. The Russian occupants are using heavy artillery, including Grad multiple rocket launchers.”
Russia has made significant advances in the south, seeking to cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea. Capturing Mariupol could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
In a speech to Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelensky pointed to “the 500-kilogram bombs that were dropped on the houses of Ukrainians”.
He added: “Look at Borodyanka, at the destroyed schools, at the blown-up kindergartens. At the damaged Kharkiv Assumption Cathedral. Look what Russia has done.”
The West has broadly backed Ukraine, offering aid and weapons and slapping Russia with vast sanctions. But the fight itself has been left to Ukrainians, who have expressed a mixture of courageous resolve and despondency.
US President Joe Biden called Mr Zelensky early Sunday, Kyiv time, to discuss sanctions on Russia and speeding up US assistance to Ukraine. The White House said the conversation also covered talks between Russia and Ukraine but did not give details.
In Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Mr Putin at the Kremlin. Israel maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and Mr Bennett has offered to act as an intermediary in the conflict.
Mr Bennett’s office said he spoke twice with Mr Zelensky afterwards, but no details were given.