Russians accused of bombarding weary Mariupol as diplomatic efforts stall

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
A woman outside Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, carries a white cloth on a stick Thursday as she and others flee Russian forces.

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Officials in Ukraine’s southern city of Mariupol accused Russian forces of bombarding the besieged seaside hub Thursday, amid international condemnation of a strike a day earlier that tore through a maternity hospital, killing at least three people and injuring 17.

As the war entered its third week, there were scant signs that the catastrophe with global implications would end anytime soon. High-level talks between Ukraine’s foreign minister and his Russian counterpart dissolved Thursday without any progress, nixing hopes of a cease-fire as the number of civilian casualties rises. Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled that – even though the economic consequences for his country were devastating – he intended to stay the course.

In Mariupol, which has now been choked of food, water and electricity for days and whose evacuation routes have been shut off by fierce shelling, the damage was particularly grave.

An adviser to the mayor’s office said Thursday that people had sheltered in basements, bodies littered the streets and the single functional hospital was at capacity. Local authorities have sought for days to deliver aid to the city and to open a corridor for civilians to get out, but they say shelling has prevented residents from leaving.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said the city was going through “Armageddon” and had faced “two days of hell.” Boichenko said in a video Thursday that planes visited residential areas in the city every 30 minutes, “killing civilians: old people, women, children.”

A Mariupol city council statement to The Washington Post said 43 people have been buried in what it described as the city’s first mass grave in the conflict. Footage from the Associated Press showed men wrapping bodies in shrouds or body bags and piling them up inside a trench.

The latest shelling hit near a theater and a university building, the city council said. On Wednesday, an airstrike buried hospital patients under rubble, killing a child and two others and injuring women who were in labor, the city council said. A U.N. official said the strike marked at least the third time a Ukrainian maternity hospital has fallen since the start of the invasion.

Evacuations from other encircled cities to different parts of Ukraine resumed Thursday, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said more than 60,000 people had been evacuated a day earlier countrywide.

The United Nations said Wednesday that 516 civilians were confirmed to have been killed and more than 900 injured since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, but it expects the true toll to be higher. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted recent “allegations of hundreds of civilian casualties” in Mariupol and other cities but said those figures were not included in its tally and “are being further corroborated.”

Petro Andryushchenko, the adviser to the mayor’s office in Mariupol, said 1,300 people died in the city since Russian forces surrounded it and at least 3,000 were injured, as authorities say rescue workers have been unable to collect all the bodies and determine the toll. With the city cut off from the outside world, the figures could not be independently verified.

“Nine days without food, warmth, and dead bodies everywhere on the street,” Andryushchenko told The Post. “What can be worse than this? The only hospital that’s left [is] filled to the brim with people.”

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Thursday, without evidence, that the maternity hospital in Mariupol was housing Ukrainian fighters, and that no women or children were in the building. Videos and photos of the aftermath show children and injured pregnant women being led away from the hospital after the attack. Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, called the episode an “atrocity.”

“What kind of country is this, the Russian Federation, which is afraid of hospitals and maternity hospitals and destroys them?” he said in a video address late Wednesday.

The talks held Thursday by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, were the latest in a flurry of failed diplomatic efforts across Europe to broker a cease-fire as city officials, including those in Mariupol, send increasingly desperate calls for aid.

Kuleba said the country had received no response to requests for a 24-hour cease-fire or for humanitarian relief for the city of Mariupol. He seemed to imply that Lavrov did not have the authority to agree to the cease-fire, asserting he would need to run possible agreements by “other decision-makers” in Russia.

Zelensky on Thursday delivered an impassioned speech in the wake of the fatal airstrike in Mariupol, thanking the Ukrainians who have “persevered” in the face of the escalating Russian attacks. “We did not become slaves, and we never will,” he said.

In the north, Russian forces continued to build up forces near Kharkiv and the capital, Kyiv. A column of Russian military vehicles that was previously stalled north of Kyiv inched closer, with leading elements about 9 miles from the city center, down from about 12 for the last several days, according to a Pentagon assessment shared by a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Pentagon.

For now, Ukrainian forces appeared to be holding ground. Drone footage published by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry appeared to show an ambush on a row of Russian armored vehicles around 15 miles north of Kyiv, spurring the vehicles to swerve rapidly to escape.

Fewer than 2 million people remain in Kyiv after around half of its residents fled, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a live broadcast Thursday. In defiant remarks, he said the city has become a fortress, adding that its people “won’t give up the mission, and the enemy won’t get through.”

The hospital attack drew condemnation from Western leaders. They included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who described it on Twitter as “depraved,” and Britain’s armed forces minister, who called it “a war crime.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “It is horrifying to see.” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said the hospital attack was “horrific,” calling for an end to the bloodshed.

Citing the horror in Mariupol and elsewhere, Zelensky has repeatedly pressed for more Western help, though U.S. and other officials have been reluctant to be increasingly drawn into a conflict with a fellow nuclear power.

Poland earlier proposed a deal to send Soviet-made jets to an air base controlled by the U.S. and NATO for use in Ukraine – in return for American F-16s – a plan that was apparently made without consulting Washington. The Pentagon rejected the deal, saying it would only serve to further escalate the war. However, U.S. officials are examining options to send the Ukrainian military more complex weapons, the senior U.S. defense official said Thursday. Those include air-defense systems that could target Russian drones and planes at a higher altitude than current “man-portable” missiles supplied by the United States and its allies.

The systems could give Ukraine a leg up in battle, as Russia is increasingly relying on its superior air force as its ground troops are slowed by Ukrainian resistance, the defense official said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Ukrainians pass a dead body Thursday as they flee the cities of Irpin and Bucha, just outside the capital, Kyiv. In the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, Mayor Vadym Boichenko said in a video Thursday that Russian planes were flying over residential areas every 30 minutes, “killing civilians: old people, women, children.

At a news conference Thursday in Poland, Vice President Kamala Harris and Polish President Andrzej Duda sidestepped questions about the matter and presented a united front, pledging to coordinate on how best to assist Ukraine.

Harris’s visit came amid tit-for-tat accusations between Russia and the United States over the potential use of biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine. Russia’s Foreign Ministry earlier claimed that Ukraine is running chemical and biological weapons labs backed by the United States, but it did not cite any evidence. The White House warned that the Russian claims could be a false flag and that Moscow could seek to use similar weapons itself.

Psaki said Thursday that Russia has a history of “inventing outright lies,” and reiterated warnings that Russia has the capacity to use chemical and biological weapons.

Meanwhile, European leaders are set to meet in the French city of Versailles to discuss the next steps in their coordinated response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including efforts to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Russia continues to face growing fallout from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Goldman Sachs announced Thursday that it was “winding down” its business in Russia to comply with regulatory and licensing requirements. Google said it will stop accepting cloud customers in Russia, following similar moves by Amazon and Microsoft, while American fast-food chain Burger King said it is suspending all corporate support for roughly 800 franchise stores in Russia.

The United Kingdom announced Thursday that it froze the assets of seven prominent Russian business executives, including the owner of Chelsea Football Club, Roman Abramovich. Abramovich sought to sell the club last week as the United Kingdom and other countries began rolling out sanctions targeting Russian elites and oligarchs linked to Putin. The sale of the football club has now been blocked, and while the team can still play, it can’t sell tickets and merchandise or sign new players.

Putin on Thursday endorsed a plan to nationalize foreign-owned businesses that have fled the country due to the invasion in Ukraine, highlighting anxieties in Moscow over the deepening crisis facing Russia’s economy. The Russian president said the country would overcome the sanctions, which he believed would have happened regardless of the war in Ukraine. He did, however, acknowledge their severe economic impact. “Russia cannot continue to exist in such a miserable and humiliated state,” he said.