Ukraine has criticised a proposal by Moscow to open refugee corridors as “completely immoral” after the Russian defence ministry announced that civilians fleeing some cities would only be allowed to leave for Belarus or Russia.
As Russian forces continued to pound Ukrainian cities, with rockets hitting residential buildings, Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, said negotiations were under way with Russia on establishing safe routes out.
But humanitarian corridors were unlikely to be set up while Russian forces keep trying to advance, Arestovich said, adding that although Ukrainians should be able to decide individually where they wanted to go, evacuating to Russia was not advisable.
A spokesperson for the Ukrainian presidency, meanwhile, said people must be allowed to flee their homes through Ukrainian territory. “This is a completely immoral story. People’s suffering is used to create the desired television picture,” he said.
On Monday, Russia announced humanitarian corridors would open in several Ukrainian cities, a day after some of the hundreds of thousands of civilians trying to flee cities including Mariupol came under fire as they attempted to leave.
The defence ministry in Moscow announced new plans for safe corridors out of the capital, Kyiv, as well as Mariupol, Kharkiv and Sumy, all of which have been heavily shelled in recent days, but several routes led only into Russia or its ally Belarus.
Moscow said the routes would open at 10am local time after a “personal request” from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to Vladimir Putin. The Élysée Palace denied the French president had made such a request, saying he had asked for civilian populations to be protected in a call on Sunday.
Russian forces continued their offensive on Monday, opening fire on the city of Mykolaiv, 480km south of Kyiv, Ukraine’s general staff said, while shelling also continued in the suburbs of Kyiv, including Irpin, which has been cut off from electricity, water and heating for three days.
“Russia continues to carry out rocket, bomb and artillery strikes on the cities and settlements of Ukraine, focusing on the encirclement of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mykolayiv,” the general staff said, adding that the invaders “continue to use the airfield network of Belarus to carry out airstrikes on Ukraine”.
A third round of broad ceasefire talks between the two sides was due to take place on Monday but with Putin vowing to achieve the “neutralisation” of Ukraine “through negotiation or through war”, hopes remain low for any kind of breakthrough.
Kyiv continues to call for Nato to impose a no-fly zone over the country but the alliance has repeatedly warned that this would bring it into direct conflict with Russia, and Putin has threatened “colossal and catastrophic consequences” if the west attempts to keep Russian planes out of Ukrainian skies. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, however, said on Sunday Washington was “working actively” on a deal with Poland to supply it with American jets.
The invasion has led to an exodus of more than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine in what the the head of the UN refugee agency has called “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since world war two”. Poland reported on Monday that more than 1 million people had crossed its border alone since 24 February.
Many millions more have been displaced internally or trapped in cities being brutally pounded by Russian bombardment. Housing blocks, town halls, schools, universities and hospitals have been hit by missile strikes and artillery fire, with some areas reduced to rubble. The UN has said it has confirmed several hundred civilian deaths but warned the real figure will be much higher.
There is also concern about the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear sites after a Russian attack on Friday on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest. The UN nuclear watchdog has expressed “grave concern” about the situation at the plant.
A second attempt at a mass evacuation from the strategic southern port city of Mariupol on Sunday failed, with the International Committee of the Red Cross saying about 200,000 people were trying to leave and warning of “devastating scenes of human suffering” in the city.
Civilians came under fire as they tried to leave many other areas including Irpin, where the mayor described seeing two adults and two children killed “in front of my eyes” when a shell hit them. Responding to the incident, the Ukrainian president, vowed to punish “every bastard’” who committed atrocities during the invasion.
“They were just trying to get out of town,” Volodymr Zelenskiy said. “To escape. The whole family. How many such families have died in Ukraine. We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will punish everyone who committed atrocities in this war.” He called the destruction “murder, deliberate murder”.
The UK defence ministry said on Monday the Russian tactics appeared to be “an effort to break Ukrainian morale”. British military officials have compared Russia’s tactics to those Moscow used in Chechnya and Syria, surrounding and pulverising cities.
Russia has made significant advances in southern Ukraine as it seeks to block access to the Sea of Azov and establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. But elsewhere progress has become stalled, including an immense military convoy that has been almost motionless for days north of Kyiv.
Western allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions against businesses, banks and billionaires in a bid to choke the Russian economy and pressure Moscow to halt its assault, but Putin has equated global sanctions with a declaration of war and warned that Kyiv’s intransigence is “putting in question the future of Ukrainian statehood”.
The Russian rouble, however, has plunged to record lows, and dozens of multinational companies have severed or severely limited their ties with the country. American Express and accountancy firms KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers said on Sunday they would suspend operations in Russia.
TikTok announced Russian users would not be able to post new videos or see videos shared from elsewhere in the world. The company blamed Moscow’s new “fake news” law, which makes it illegal, among other things, to describe the fighting as an invasion. Netflix also cut its service to Russia but provided no details.
The US house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said Congress is exploring how to further isolate Russia from the global economy, including banning the import of its oil and energy products into the US.