Putin’s lapdog Sergei Lavrov has landed in Turkey to meet Kyiv’s foreign minister for talks on Thursday for the first time since Russia’s lawless invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow and Kyiv’s meeting in the NATO country will be the highest-level diplomatic encounter since the Kremlin launched a full-scale operation to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘deNazify’ Ukraine – dismissed as baseless pretexts by Kyiv and her Western partners, including Britain and the US.
While Turkey has supplied Ukraine with drones and other military hardware, it has also opposed sweeping international sanctions on Russia.
Senior Turkish presidential advisor Ilnur Cevik said the fact that the meeting is happening is a success, adding: ‘They recognize Turkey as an honest broker, it seems. So, we are very happy about that, we don’t know where it will take us, but the fact that it’s happening is very, very significant.’
Kuleba confirmed in a video on Facebook he was preparing to meet Lavrov on Thursday, warning that his expectations were ‘limited’. He said the success of the talks would depend on ‘what instructions and directives Lavrov is under’ from the Kremlin at the discussions.
Ukraine’s comic-turned-wartime president Volodymyr Zelensky has said he has ‘cooled’ on Kyiv’s demands to join NATO and is open to talks on the future of Russian-occupied regions, opening the door to a possible diplomatic solution to the war.
Zelensky, who has become a beacon of defiance to Russian aggression since the war began almost two weeks ago, said on Monday night that it appears NATO is not willing to accept Ukraine as a member and he is not willing ‘to beg on my knees’.
He also said that he is ‘open to dialogue’ on the future of Crimea, Luhansk and Donbass – three regions occupied by Russia before the invasion which Putin wants to break away from Ukraine – but is not willing to accept ‘ultimatums’.
Such rhetoric, while falling short of Russian demands, does at least open up the possibility of a deal to end fighting ahead of high-level negotiations in Turkey.
On Monday, Russian and Ukrainian delegates sat down for a third round of peace talks after Moscow told the country it will stop its onslaught ‘in a moment’ if Kyiv meets a raft of extraordinary Kremlin conditions.
Russia is demanding Ukraine cease military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality so it cannot join the EU or NATO, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory and recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent territories.
It comes as a Russian attack severely damaged a maternity hospital in the besieged port city of Mariupol – wounding at least 17 people, Ukraine has said.
Putin’s lapdog Sergei Lavrov has landed in Turkey to meet Kyiv’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba
Smoke rise after shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022
Ukrainian serviceman guards as residents cross the destroyed bridge as they flee from Irpin, March 9, 2022
A man rides a bicycle in front of a damaged apartment building in Mariupol, March 9, 2022
Ukrainian soldiers and emergency employees work at the side of the damaged maternity hospital in Mariupol, March 9, 2022
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The ground shook more than a mile away when a series of blasts slammed into the Mariupol complex, blowing out windows and ripping away much of the front of one building.
Police and soldiers rushed to scene to evacuate victims, carrying out a heavily pregnant and bleeding woman on a stretcher. Another woman wailed as she clutched her child. In the courtyard, mangled cars burned, and a blast crater went at least two stories deep.
Zelensky wrote on Twitter there were ‘people, children under the wreckage’ of the hospital and called the strike an ‘atrocity’.
Video footage shared by Zelensky showed cheerfully painted hallways strewn with twisted metal and room after room with blown-out windows. Floors were covered in wreckage. Outside, a small fire burned and debris covered the ground.
Mariupol’s city council said on its social media site that the damage was ‘colossal’.
Authorities announced new ceasefires on Wednesday morning to allow thousands of civilians to escape from towns around Kyiv as well as the southern cities of Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha, Izyum in the east and Sumy in the northeast.
Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors largely failed because of what the Ukrainians said were Russian attacks. But Putin, in a telephone call with Germany’s chancellor, accused militant Ukrainian nationalists of hampering the evacuations.
It was not immediately clear whether anyone was able to leave other cities on Wednesday, but people streamed out of Kyiv’s suburbs, many headed for the city centre, even as explosions were heard in the capital and air raid sirens sounded repeatedly. From there, the evacuees planned to board trains bound for western Ukrainian regions not under attack.
Civilians trying to escape the suburb of Irpin were forced to make their way across the slippery wooden planks of a makeshift bridge after the Ukrainians blew up the concrete span days ago to slow the Russian advance.
With sporadic gunfire echoing behind them, firefighters dragged an elderly man to safety in a wheelbarrow, a child gripped the hand of a helping soldier, and a woman inched her way along cradling a fluffy cat inside her winter coat. They trudged past a crashed van with the words ‘Our Ukraine’ written in the dust coating its windows.
‘We have a short window of time at the moment,’ said Yevhen Nyshchuk, a member of Ukraine’s territorial defence forces. ‘Even if there is a cease-fire right now, there is a high risk of shells falling at any moment.’
In Mariupol, local authorities hurried to bury the dead in a mass grave. City workers dug a trench some 25 metres long at one of the city’s old cemeteries and made the sign of the cross as they pushed bodies wrapped in carpets or bags over the edge.
Nationwide, thousands are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in the two weeks of fighting since Putin’s forces invaded. The UN estimates more than 2million people have fled the country, the biggest exodus of refugees in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
The fighting knocked out power to the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant, raising fears about the spent fuel that is stored at the site and must be kept cool. But the UN nuclear watchdog agency said it saw ‘no critical impact on safety’ from the loss of power.
A Ukrainian soldier examines a huge crater caused by one of the Russian rockets, which fell just in front of a hospital building at the maternity hospital in Mariupol
A satellite image taken on Tuesday but released Wednesday shows the destroyed road bridge on the outskirts of Irpin, near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, which refugees have been using to flee the besieged city
Residents cross the destroyed bridge as they flee from the frontline town of Irpin, Ukraine, March 9, 2022
Ukrainian servicemen work inside of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, March 9, 2022
A couple hugs prior to Ukrainian Army deployment closer to the front line at the train station in Lviv, March 9, 2022
A Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces member holds an NLAW anti-tank weapon, in the outskirts of Kyiv, March 9, 2022
President Zelensky has survived ‘more than a DOZEN assassination attempts’ with various killers ‘liquidated’, one of his close advisers claims
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has survived ‘more than a dozen’ assassination attempts’, one of his close advisers has claimed.
Mikhail Podolyak, the head of the office for the President, has warned of Russian ‘sabotage groups’ entering Kyiv and attempting to hunt down Mr Zelensky and his family.
But he said a ‘very powerful network of intelligence and counterintelligence’ had foiled the attempted attacks and the attempted killers had been ‘liquidated’ before they reached the president.
Mr Podolyak said western intelligence was right to say Mr Zelensky was Putin’s ‘number one target’ but refuted recent reports that stated the Ukraine president had survived ‘three assassination attempts in the last week’, believing the number to be far higher.
Speaking to Pravda.com, Mr Podolyak said: ‘Our foreign partners are talking about two or three attempts. I believe that there were more than a dozen such attempts.’
He said the president’s office always has ‘operational information’ sabotage groups who want to enter the government quarter.
The crisis in Ukraine is likely to get worse as Russian forces step up their bombardment of cities in response to stronger than expected resistance.
Russian losses have been ‘far in excess’ of what Putin and his generals expected, CIA director William Burns said on Tuesday.
An intensified push by Russian forces could mean ‘an ugly next few weeks’, Burns told a congressional committee, warning that Putin is likely to ‘grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties’.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace echoed those comments on Wednesday, telling MPs Russia’s assault will get ‘more brutal and more indiscriminate’ as Putin tries to regain momentum.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said fighting continued northwest of Kyiv. The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol were being heavily shelled and remained encircled by Russian forces.
Russian forces are placing military equipment on farms and amid residential buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukraine’s military said. In the south, Russians in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding centre of 500,000 people, it said.
The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, is building up defences in cities in the north, south and east, and forces around Kyiv are ‘holding the line’ against the Russian offensive, authorities said.
In Irpin, a town of 60,000, police officers and soldiers helped elderly residents from their homes. One man was hoisted out of a damaged structure on a makeshift stretcher, while another was pushed toward Kyiv in a shopping cart. Fleeing residents said they had been without power and water for the past four days.
Regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians is deepening in and around Kyiv, with the situation particularly dire in the suburbs.
‘Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, frustrating the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing small communities,’ he said.
The situation is even worse in Mariupol, a strategic city of 430,000 people on the Sea of Azov that has been encircled by Russian forces for the past week.
Efforts to evacuate residents and deliver badly needed food, water and medicine failed on Tuesday because of what the Ukrainians said were continued Russian attacks.
The city took advantage of a lull in the shelling on Wednesday to hurriedly bury 70 people. Some were soldiers but most were civilians.
The work was conducted efficiently and without ceremony. No mourners were present. No families were there to say their goodbyes.
One woman stood at the gates of the cemetery to ask whether her mother was among those being buried. She was.