Russia has said it will treat arms shipments to Ukraine from Nato countries as “legitimate targets” for military action in a dangerous new escalation of tensions.
The warning from the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, came as supporters of Ukraine, including the UK, Germany and the United States, have been urgently shipping thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Kyiv in response to Moscow’s aggression.
Ryabkov said that Russia had “warned the US that pumping weapons from a number of countries it orchestrates isn’t just a dangerous move, it’s an action that makes those convoys legitimate targets”.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, disclosed that at least 1,300 of his country’s troops have been killed in the conflict so far in the first estimate of Ukraine’s combat losses after almost three weeks of fighting. Ukraine has claimed to have killed some 12,000 Russian troops.
Heavy fighting continued across Ukraine. The French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz reported that Vladimir Putin showed no willingness to end the war after a phone call between the leaders in which they renewed a call for a ceasefire and negotiations. A statement from the office of the French president described the conversation with the Russian leader as “very frank and also difficult”.
Russian forces continued to pulverise the besieged port city of Mariupol, shelling a mosque sheltering more than 80 people, including children, the Ukrainian government said on Saturday, while fighting also raged on the outskirts of Kyiv.
In several areas around the capital artillery barrages sent residents scurrying for shelter and air raid sirens wailed. Britain’s Ministry of Defence said that Russian ground forces massed north of Kyiv had now edged to within 15 miles of the city centre as their attempt to encircle it ground on.
Columns of smoke were seen rising over the southwest of the city after a strike on an ammunition depot in the town of Vasylkiv.
In the south, Ukraine’s military said that Russian forces captured Mariupol’s eastern outskirts, tightening the armed squeeze on the strategic port. Taking Mariupol and other ports on the Azov Sea could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Zelenskiy encouraged his people to keep up their resistance, which many analysts said has prevented the rapid offensive and military victory the Kremlin had expected. “The fact that the whole Ukrainian people resist these invaders has already gone down in history, but we do not have the right to let up our defence, no matter how difficult it may be for us,” he said.
He accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the apparent kidnapping of the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, who was last seen being led away from his office on Friday by armed men, prompting a demonstration in the city.
Zelenskiy added that Russia would need to carpet-bomb the Ukrainian capital and kill its residents to take the city. “They will come here only if they kill us all,” he said. “If that is their goal, let them come.”
In a bleak coda that spoke of the continuing levels of destruction, Zelenskiy added that some small Ukrainian towns had ceased to exist.
Despite crippling economic sanctions imposed on Moscow and international isolation, Putin – who has imposed his own draconian crackdown on media freedom and free speech in Russia – has given no indication of being swayed to end the war.
In his 90-minute call with Macron and Scholz on Saturday, Putin spoke about “issues related to agreements under discussion to implement the Russian demands” for ending the war, the Kremlin said without providing details. Among other things, the Kremlin has previously demanded a promise by Nato never to accept Ukraine as a member and for the alliance to pull back from countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
Ukrainian officials continued efforts to evacuate besieged cities, including the capital, as well as towns and villages in the regions of Kyiv, Sumy and some other areas.
The governor of the Kyiv region Oleksiy Kuleba said fighting and threats of Russian air attacks were continuing yesterday morning but later said some evacuations were proceeding. “We will try to get people out every day, as long as it’s possible to observe a ceasefire,” he said.
The governor of the Russian-controlled territory of Donetsk said constant shelling was complicating bringing aid into Mariupol.
“There are reports of looting and violent confrontations among civilians over what little basic supplies remain in the city,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. “Medicines for life-threatening illnesses are quickly running out, hospitals are only partially functioning, and the food and water are in short supply.”
People were boiling ground water for drinking, using wood to cook food and burying dead bodies near where they lay, a staff member for the international group Médecins Sans Frontières in the city said.
“We saw people who died because of lack of medication,” he said, adding that many people had also been wounded or killed. “Neighbours just dig a hole in the ground and put the dead bodies inside.”