With Russian troops besieging cities in Ukraine’s south, spurring a humanitarian catastrophe even as they press their offensive around the capital, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the strategic coastal city of Odesa would soon be under attack and urged Western countries to create a no-fly zone.
“Russians have always visited Odessa, felt only warmth in Odessa… And now what? Bombs on Odessa? Artillery on Odessa?” Zelensky said in an impassioned video address on Sunday. “It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime.”
His pleas came as Ukrainian authorities tried and failed for a second consecutive day to evacuate civilians from Mariupol and Volnovakha, two cities in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Mariupol, a port city of a half-million people, is a key part of Russia’s offensive to deny Ukraine any exit to the sea. An earlier ceasefire on Saturday broke down with both the Ukrainian and Russian sides accusing the other of violations.
Both cities have in recent days suffered cut-offs of electricity, heat and food amid the encirclement by Russian forces that have expanded their reach across the south.
But the ceasefire didn’t materialize on Sunday. Though a so-called “regime of silence” (meaning a ceasefire) was set to begin at 10 am local time and last for eleven hours, it had collapsed by afternoon. Pavlo Kirilenko, head of the Ukrainian government’s military-civilian administration in Donetsk, said the evacuation convoy couldn’t leave, blaming the situation on Russian troops who he said were “regrouping their forces” and conducting “powerful shelling” of the city.
“It is extremely dangerous to take people out under such conditions,” he said, adding that a humanitarian convoy was heading towards Mariupol from the city of Zaporizhzhia, more than 120 miles away, but had yet to reach its destination.
The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that the estimated evacuation of some 200,000 people from Mariupol failed, saying the city was enduring “devastating scenes of human suffering.”
“Today, our team began opening up the evacuation route from Mariupol before hostilities resumed,” the group said in a statement. “We remain in Mariupol and are ready to help facilitate further attempts – if the parties reach an agreement, which is for them alone to implement and respect.”
Mykolaiev, another coastal city that Russian forces have tried to take in recent days ahead of a push on Odessa, prepared to put up a defense. Its mayor, Oleksandr Senkevich, said in a post on his official Facebook page that the city remained in Ukrainian hands and thanked employees of a local company who helped prepare Czech hedgehogs — the large, caltrops-shaped anti-tank obstacles.
Later in the day, Zelensky posted another video message after reports of an eight-rocket barrage hitting the Vinnytsia regional airport, some 110 miles southwest of Kyiv: “Against our city against our peaceful Vinnystia — which has never posed a threat to Russia in any way — a brutal, cynical missile strike has completely destroyed the airport.”
He added that Russia was obliterating Ukrainian infrastructure and that it was the responsibility of Western leaders to create a no-fly zone. “If you do not do that, if you don’t at least give us aircraft for us to be able to protect ourselves, there can be only one conclusion: You also want us to be slowly killed. This is also the responsibility of the world’s politicians. Western leaders. Today and Forever.”
The conflict has spurred a mass exodus of Ukrainians fleeing either to the country’s western regions or neighboring nations. On Sunday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the number of Ukrainians who have crossed the border to the country’s neighbors surpassed 1.5 million.
I have characterized it as “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.”
With Moscow’s offensive reaching dense urban areas and casualties among civilians spiking, Zelensky exhorted Western powers to close the skies over Ukraine and deny the Russians the freedom to operate their aircraft.
“The world has the power to close our sky from Russian missiles. From Russian combat aircraft, helicopters,” he said. “If anyone still doubts, Ukraine needs plans. In fact, it’s simple. When you have the will. To make the sky safe. The sky of Ukraine. The sky of Europe.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands have come to the country for its defense. Following Zelensky’s speech last weekend when he exhorted those who want to join Ukrainians in an “international legion” to fight against Russia, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Sunday the number of volunteers who have signed up was approaching 20,000 people hailing from 52 countries.
That adds to the more than 66,000 Ukrainian men who have returned to join the fight as well, according to Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznkov in a tweet on Saturday. The figures could not be independently verified.