Vadim GIRDA and JURAS KARMANOV
Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Residents of the bombed-out suburbs of the Ukrainian capital made their way through the slippery wooden planks of a makeshift bridge that was the only way to avoid Russian shelling amid renewed efforts Wednesday to rescue civilians from besieged cities.
Behind the scenes, occasional gunfire echoed, firefighters dragged the elderly man to safety in a wheelbarrow, a child grabbed a soldier to help, and a woman walked down the road, holding a furry cat in her winter coat. On the other side of the bridge, they all raced past a broken-down minibus with the words “Our Ukraine” on the dusty windows.
“Now we have little time,” said Yevhen Nishchuk, a soldier of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. “Even if there is a ceasefire now, there is a high risk of shells falling at any moment.”
Thousands of people, both civilians and soldiers, are believed to have been killed in the two weeks of fighting after President Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine. The UN estimates that more than 2 million people have fled the country, making it the largest exodus of refugees to Europe since the end of World War II.
The crisis is likely to worsen as Russian forces intensify bombardments of cities across the country in response to stronger-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian forces. Russia’s losses “far exceed” what Putin and his generals expected, CIA Director William Burns said Tuesday.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in many Ukrainian cities, concerns over the security of its nuclear power plant amid hostilities have caused alarm around the world.
On Wednesday, the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant was decommissioned and forced to switch to a generator. This has raised concerns about the plant’s ability to maintain safe cooling of nuclear fuel, although the UN nuclear service said it did not see “no critical safety impact” from the power outage.
Diesel generators at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s largest nuclear accident in 1986, have fuel for 48 hours, according to power utility operator Ukrenergo. The plant was shut down in 2000, but spent nuclear fuel from Chernobyl and other nuclear power plants in Ukraine is still in a deserted location.
On Wednesday, authorities announced a new ceasefire to allow civilians to flee cities around the capital Kyiv, as well as the southern cities of Mariupol, Energodar and Volnovakha, Raisins in the east and Sumy in the northeast. Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors have largely failed due to attacks by Russian forces.
It was not immediately clear how successful the new attempt was on Wednesday. Nothing was reported from the important port of Mariupol, where the days of shelling largely cut off residents from the outside world and forced them to look for food and water.
But some people really began to flow from the suburbs of Kiev on the route of evacuation, which, according to Ukrainians, agreed by both sides, even when the capital was explosive and repeatedly sounded sirens. Many are heading to the city center, from where they board trains heading to western regions that are not under attack.
The heightened push by Russian troops could mean “an ugly next few weeks,” Burns, a U.S. official, told a congressional committee, warning that Putin was likely to “destroy the Ukrainian military without taking into account civilian casualties.”
However, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that the military is increasing defense in cities in the north, south and east, and forces around Kiev “hold the line” against the Russian offensive.
It even stated in the General Staff that Russian troops are deploying military equipment on farms and among apartment buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv. In the south, Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Nikolaev, the center of the Black Sea shipbuilding with a population of half a million.
Ukrainian resistance is tougher than many expected – and Western countries are now in a hurry to strengthen their forces. The President of Ukraine has repeatedly asked for military aircraft to counter Russia’s significant aviation power, but Western countries disagreed on how best to do so amid fears it could increase the risk of the war spreading beyond Ukraine.
Poland on Tuesday evening offered to hand over 28 MiG-29 fighters for use to Ukraine. U.S. officials have said the proposal is “unfulfilled,” but they continue to consult with Poland and other NATO allies.
In addition to material support for Ukraine, Western countries have tried to put pressure on Russia through a series of punitive sanctions. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden further raised the rate, saying the U.S. would ban all imports of Russian oil, even if it would mean rising costs for Americans.
Energy exports have maintained a steady flow of money to Russia, despite severe restrictions that have severely cut its economy off from the world. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and General Electric have announced that they are temporarily suspending business in the country, contributing to isolation.
These steps have so far blunted the conflict.
A series of air raids on Wednesday morning urged residents of the capital to go to the bomb shelter amid fears of incoming missiles. Associated Press reporters later heard the blasts.
Such alerts are common, albeit irregular, keeping people in suspense. Kiev has been relatively quiet in recent days, although Russian artillery has pushed the outskirts of the city.
The head of the Kyiv regional administration Alexei Kuleba said that the crisis for the civilian population is growing in the capital, especially the critical situation in the suburbs.
“Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kiev region, preventing the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing of small towns,” he said.
Amid the bombings, authorities repeatedly tried to evacuate civilians, but many attempts were thwarted by Russian shelling.
One evacuation on Tuesday was successful: Ukrainian authorities said 5,000 civilians, including 1,700 foreign students, had managed to escape from Sumy, a city in the northeast that is at war with a quarter of a million people.
But in the south, Russian troops have advanced deep along Ukraine’s coastline, trying to establish a land bridge to Crimea that Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. As a result, Mariupol was surrounded by Russian troops.
On Tuesday, an attempt to evacuate civilians and deliver much-needed food, water and medicine failed, and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces fired on the convoy before it reached a city from which nearly half of the 430,000 population hopes to flee.
Corpses lie in the streets, and people break into shops in search of food and melt snow for water. Thousands of people are huddled in basements, hiding from Russian shells hitting this strategic port on the Sea of Azov.
“Why don’t I cry?” Goma Janna demanded as she cried by the light of an underground oil lamp surrounded by women and children. “I want my home, I want my job. I am so sad for the people, for the city and for the children. “
Karmanov reported from Lviv (Ukraine). Associated Press reporters Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, along with reporters from around the world, contributed to the report.
Follow the coverage of the crisis in Ukraine in the AP at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine