Volodymyr Zelenskiy has warned that retreating Russian forces are creating “a complete disaster” by leaving mines on homes and corpses in their wake, as renewed missile strikes on Ukrainian cities were reported.
Ukraine’s president issued the warning on Saturday morning as the humanitarian crisis in the encircled city of Mariupol deepened, with Russian forces reportedly blocking evacuation operations for the second day in a row. Meanwhile, the Kremlin accused the Ukrainians of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine denied responsibility for the attack in Belgorod near the border between the two countries, but if Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the war’s first known attack in which Ukrainian aircraft penetrated Russian airspace.
“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, five weeks after Moscow began sending upwards of 150,000 of its own troops across Ukraine’s border.
Russia continued withdrawing some of its ground forces from areas around Kyiv after saying earlier this week it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and the northern city of Chernihiv.
“They are mining the whole territory. They are mining homes, mining equipment, even the bodies of people who were killed,” Zelenskyy said in his customary video address to the nation. “There are a lot of trip wires, a lot of other dangers.”
Amid reports of missile attacks on the central Ukraine cities of Poltava and Kremenchuk on Saturday morning, Zelenskiy said that the Russians were withdrawing “slowly but noticeably”.
But he also pleaded with Russian families not to let their young men sign up for the army as the Kremlin’s annual military conscription drive began.
“We don’t need more dead people here. Save your children so they do not become villains. Don’t send them to the army. Do whatever you can to keep them alive. Keep them at home,” he said, adding that he believed Russia was trying to recruit conscripts from Crimea.
Ukraine’s military said on Friday it had retaken 29 settlements in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.
Still, Ukraine and its allies warned that the Kremlin is not de-escalating to promote trust at the bargaining table, as it claimed, but instead resupplying and shifting its troops to the country’s east. Those movements appear to be preparation for an intensified assault on the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in the country’s east, which includes Mariupol.
Zelenskiy did not say anything about the latest round of talks, which took place on Friday by video. At a round of talks earlier in the week, Ukraine said it would be willing to abandon a bid to join NATO and declare itself neutral — Moscow’s chief demand — in return for security guarantees from several other countries.
The invasion has left thousands dead and driven more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine.
Mariupol, the shattered and besieged southern port city, has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. Its capture would be a major prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, giving his country an unbroken land bridge to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
On Friday, the International Committee for the Red Cross said it was unable to carry out an operation to bring civilians out of Mariupol by bus. City authorities said the Russians were blocking access to the city.
“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
He said Russian forces “are categorically not allowing any humanitarian cargo, even in small amounts, into the city.”
Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a prewar 430,000. Weeks of Russian bombardment and street fighting have caused severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” Red Cross spokesperson Ewan Watson said.
On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a 45-bus convoy attempting to evacuate people from Mariupol and seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies bound for the city, Ukrainian authorities said.
Zelenskiy said more than 3,000 people were able to leave Mariupol on Friday.
He said he discussed the humanitarian disaster with French President Emmanuel Macron by telephone and with the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, during her visit to Kyiv.
“Europe doesn’t have the right to be silent about what is happening in our Mariupol,” Zelenskyy said. “The whole world should respond to this humanitarian catastrophe.”