LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – Russian forces have stepped up shelling of cities in central Ukraine, north and south, a Ukrainian official said, halting attempts to evacuate civilians from the encirclement. When the Ukrainian leader called on his people to fight in the streets, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted the blame for the invasion, saying Moscow’s attacks could be stopped “only if Kyiv stops hostilities.”
The outskirts of Kyiv, Chernihiv in the north, Mykolaiv in the south and Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, came under heavy shelling on Sunday, presidential adviser Alexei Arastovich said. According to local authorities, heavy artillery hit residential areas of Kharkiv, and shelling damaged the TV tower.
“Perhaps this will be an attempt to break the morale of Ukraine,” the British Defense Ministry said of Russia’s tactics when the war entered its 12th day on Monday. The fighting has forced 1.5 million people to flee the country, which the head of the UN refugee agency has called “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.”
Recent attacks have shattered hopes that more people will be able to avoid fighting in Ukraine, where Russia’s plan to quickly seize the country has been halted by fierce resistance. Russia has made significant progress in southern Ukraine and along the coast, but many of its efforts have stalled, including a huge military convoy that has been nearly stationary for days north of Kiev.
Food, water, medicine and almost all other supplies in the Mariupol city in the south of the port, where Russian and Ukrainian forces agreed to an 11-hour ceasefire to evacuate civilians and the wounded, were lacking. But Russian attacks quickly closed the humanitarian corridor, Ukrainian officials said.
“There can be no ‘green corridors’, because only the sick brains of Russians decide when and from whom to start shooting,” Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko told Telegram.
The third round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian leaders is scheduled for Monday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rallied his people to remain hostile, especially in Russian-occupied cities.
“We need to go outside! We have to fight! ” – he said on Saturday on Ukrainian television. “We need to get out and drive this evil out of our cities, out of our land.”
Zelensky also asked the United States and NATO countries to send more fighter jets to Ukraine. But this idea is complicated by questions about how to provide aircraft to Ukrainian pilots.
He later called on the West to tighten sanctions against Russia, saying “the aggressor’s audacity is a clear signal” that the existing sanctions are not enough.
A senior U.S. defense official said Sunday that the United States estimates that about 95 percent of Russia’s troops stationed around Ukraine are now inside the country. The official said Russian forces continued to advance, trying to isolate Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, but met strong resistance from Ukraine.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments, said the convoy near Kiev continued to stop.
As he often did, Putin blamed Ukraine for the war, telling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday that Kiev needed to stop all hostilities and comply with “Russia’s well-known demands.”
Putin began his invasion with a number of false accusations against Kyiv, including that he was guided by the neo-Nazis’ intention to undermine Russia by developing nuclear weapons.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Sunday announced that its forces intend to strike at Ukraine’s military-industrial complex, they said, with high-precision weapons. A spokesman for the ministry, Igor Kanashenko, said in a statement transmitted by the state news agency TASS that Ukrainian personnel had to repair damaged military equipment so that it could be returned to service.
Zelensky criticized Western leaders for failing to respond to Russia’s latest threat.
“I have not heard of even one world leader reacting to this,” Zelensky said on Sunday evening.
Russia’s Defense Ministry also claimed, without providing evidence, that Ukrainian forces were preparing to blow up an experimental nuclear reactor in Kharkov and blamed it on a Russian missile strike.
Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke on Sunday about the nuclear situation in Ukraine, which has 15 nuclear reactors at four power plants and was the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The men basically agreed to a “dialogue” involving Russia, Ukraine and the UN nuclear service, according to a French official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with presidential practice. Potential talks on the issue should be organized in the coming days, he said.
Putin also blamed the fire at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant last week, which Ukrainian officials said was caused by Russian attackers, “a provocation organized by Ukrainian radicals.”
International leaders, as well as Pope Francis, have called on Putin to negotiate.
With a very unusual step, the Pope said he had sent two cardinals to Ukraine to try to end the conflict.
“Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine,” the pontiff said in his traditional Sunday blessing.
The death toll remains unclear. The UN says it has confirmed only a few hundred civilians killed, but also warned that the figure is significantly underestimated.
About eight civilians were killed in Russian shelling in the city of Irpin on the northwestern outskirts of Kiev, said Mayor Alexander Markyshin. Among the dead was a family.
The video shows the shell crashing into a city street, not far from the bridge where people were fleeing the fighting. It was seen as a group of fighters tried to help the family.
Few residents who managed to escape from Mariupol before the closure of the humanitarian corridor said the city of 430,000 people was devastated.
“We saw everything: houses were burning, all people were sitting in basements,” said Elena Zamay, who fled to one of the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, which is held by pro-Russian separatists. “No communication, no water, no gas, no light, no water. There was nothing. “
British military officials have compared Russia’s tactics to those used by Moscow in Chechnya and Syria, where besieged cities have been destroyed by air strikes and artillery.
Zelensky reiterated a request to foreign protectors to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which NATO has so far ruled out for fear that such actions would lead to a much wider war.
“The world is strong enough to close our skies,” Zelensky said in a video message Sunday.
The Ukrainian military is far superior to the Russian, but its professional and volunteer forces fought back with fierce tenacity. In Kyiv, volunteers lined up on Saturday to join the military.
The West has widely supported Ukraine by offering aid and arms supplies and imposing heavy sanctions on Russia. But no NATO troops were sent to Ukraine.
Ukraine plans to create an international legion of volunteer fighters from dozens of countries. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmitry Kuleba, more than 20,000 people volunteered, but it is unknown how many are in Ukraine.
“Today the whole world is on the side of Ukraine not only in words but also in deeds,” he said on Ukrainian television on Sunday night.
Russia has made significant progress in southern Ukraine, trying to block access to the Sea of Azov. The capture of Mariupol could allow Moscow to create a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, which most other countries considered illegal.
Russia has become increasingly isolated in the days since the invasion, shutting itself off from outside sources as sanctions bite deep into its economy. The ruble has fallen in value, and dozens of multinational companies have stopped or sharply reduced their work in the country.
On Sunday, American Express announced the suspension of activities in Russia, as well as in the allied Russia of Belarus. In addition, two of the so-called Big Four accounting firms, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers, said Sunday they would end their relationship with their Russian member firms.
TikTok announced that on Sunday Russian users will not be able to post new videos or watch videos from other parts of the world. The company has accused Moscow of a new “fake news” law that makes it illegal, among other things, to describe the fighting as an invasion. Netflix also cut its services in Russia, but did not provide details.
Russia has already blocked Facebook and Twitter, as well as access to the websites of a number of major international media outlets. TikTok is part of the Chinese technology company ByteDance.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress is exploring how to further isolate Russia from the global economy, including a ban on imports of its oil and energy products to the United States. Pelosi said on Sunday that the law would also sever normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus and begin the process of denying Russia access to the World Trade Organization.
Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the coverage of the crisis in Ukraine in the AP at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine