ISSN 2330-717X

Zelenskiy Warns Ukraine Is ‘On The Brink’ As Battle For Mariupol Rages

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(RFE/RL) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has warned that his country is on the “brink of survival” as Russian forces continue to pound key infrastructure and civilian targets more than four weeks after launching an unprovoked invasion.

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Explosions and gunfire could be heard in the key port city of Mariupol, the most contentious battleground in the war so far, as Ukrainian defenders battled on March 22 to stave off the deadly onslaught.

Zelenskiy, who has remained defiant throughout the conflict despite Russia’s overwhelming advantage in firepower, says Ukraine could never give up the strategic port, or other cities, including Kharkiv and Kyiv.

“For Russian troops, Ukraine is the gates of Europe, where they want to break in, but barbarism must not be allowed to pass,” he told Italian lawmakers in an address via video link.

“We are on the brink of survival,” he added.

The Ukrainian leader has given similar speeches to lawmakers in several other countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, and Israel, to plead his case for more military assistance in battling Russian troops.

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The two sides have been holding talks via video links to come up with a formulation for a cease-fire, and Zelenskiy continues to insist on the need to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin “in any format” to end the fighting.

“I believe that without this meeting, it is impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war,” said Zelenskiy, who added that any compromises made in talks with Russians would be put before the Ukrainian people in a referendum.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed on March 22 that the process was going “much more slowly and less substantively than we would like.” Peskov added that he could not go into detail given the sensitivity of the talks.

After Zelenskiy’s speech, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi praised Ukraine for its “heroic” resistance and blasted Russia for its actions.

“The arrogance of the Russian government has collided with the dignity of the Ukrainian people, who have managed to curb Moscow’s expansionist aims and impose a huge cost on the invading army,” Draghi said.

For the past two weeks, Russia has attempted to encircle the besieged city of Mariupol, an important port on the Sea of Azov. Taking control of the city would give it a land link between Crimea — which Moscow seized in 2014 — and territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Residents of Mariupol, which had a population of 400,000 before the war broke out, have for the past two weeks been trapped without basic supplies, such as water, food, and fuel.

At least 2,300 people have died in Mariupol, some buried in mass graves, authorities say.

Russia has stepped up its attacks in recent days, with many targets such as hospitals, apartment buildings, and civic buildings such as theaters being destroyed by seemingly indiscriminate bombings.

The U.S. military on March 21 accused Russian forces of committing war crimes in their bloody invasion of Ukraine, while President Joe Biden told a group of U.S. business leaders on March 21 that Russia’s actions were that of a country encountering far more resistance than expected.

“His back is against the wall,” Biden said of Putin, adding that Moscow would face “severe” consequences if it were to use chemical weapons.

Amid expectations of further air strikes against the capital, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko implemented a new 35-hour curfew that took force at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT/UTC) on March 21.

The mayor of Boryspil, which is close to Boryspil International Airport near Kyiv, on March 22 advised residents to evacuate as fighting with Russian forces nears.

Mayor Volodymyr Borysenko said in a video address posted on Facebook that there “is no need to be in the city now, as there is already fighting going on in the area around it.”

“I call on the civilian population to be smart, reach out to our call center, and leave town as soon as an opportunity arises,” he added.

Earlier on March 22, the Defense Ministry said Ukrainian troops forced Russian forces out of the northwest Kyiv suburb of Makariv after a fierce battle.

Russian troops appear to be trying to surround Kyiv as they slowly move toward the city center.

Boryspil International Airport is Ukraine’s largest airport, located 29 kilometers east of the capital.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance and the West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow in an effort to force it to withdraw its forces.

NATO, the United States, and most other Western allies have said they will not send troops to Ukraine, but instead have launched a series of crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy and those around Putin.

Poland and the Baltic states are now pushing for even tougher sanctions, including an EU ban on Russian oil and gas imports. However, Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas, and some other EU member states are resisting.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov has said Europe would be hit hard in the event of an embargo on Russian oil, striking the continent’s energy balance.

Russia has denied targeting civilians despite widespread evidence of deadly attacks on nonmilitary sites.

Observers have speculated that Russian military momentum has been stopped by Ukrainian forces in many parts of the country and that the sides could be heading for a long, protracted stalemate in the war.

Almost 3.6 million have fled across Ukraine’s borders to neighboring countries, the United Nations’ refugee agency estimated on March 22, with the bulk of them arriving in NATO and European Union member Poland.

“This is another tragic milestone for the people of Ukraine and it has been achieved in just under one month,” UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh told a briefing, adding that 6.5 million people had been internally displaced within Ukraine.

“You are looking at almost one-quarter of the entire population. The speed and the scale of this outflow and this displacement crisis is unprecedented in recent times.”

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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