KRAMATORSK, Ukraine: Ukraine steeled itself on Monday for what could be the imminent fall of Mariupol to Russian troops as President Volodymyr Zelensky said he believed “tens of thousands” of people had been killed in Moscow’s assault on the strategic southern port city.
With the war grinding toward its seventh week, Ukrainian forces said they were also bolstering their positions in the east ahead of an anticipated massive Russian campaign.
Austria’s chancellor meanwhile became the first European leader to visit Moscow since the Russian attacks, saying he would raise alleged war crimes in devastated areas around Kyiv that had been under Russian occupation.
Karl Nehammer had tough face-to-face talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Nehammer said after the meeting.
“This is not a friendly meeting,” Nehammer was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office, reiterating that he had hoped to help bring an end to the war or improve conditions for civilians.
“The conversation with President Putin was very direct, open and tough.”
Russia will not pause military operation for peace talks
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia will not pause its military operation in Ukraine for subsequent rounds of peace talks.
Russian officials say peace talks with Ukraine are not progressing as rapidly as they would like, and have accused the West of trying to derail negotiations by raising war crimes allegations against Russian troops in Ukraine, which Moscow denies.
Speaking in an interview with Russian state television, Lavrov said he saw no reason not to continue talks with Ukraine but insisted Moscow would not halt its military operation when the sides convene again.
Lavrov said that Putin had ordered to suspend military action during the first round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in late February but that Moscow’s position had changed since.
“After we became convinced that the Ukrainians were not planning to reciprocate, a decision was made that during the next rounds of talks, there would be no pause (in military action) so long as a final agreement is not reached,” Lavrov said.
“Today will probably be the last battle, as the ammunition is running out,” the 36th marine brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces said on Facebook.
“It’s death for some of us, and captivity for the rest,” it added, saying it had been “pushed back” and “surrounded” by the Russian army.
A pro-Russia rebel leader, Denis Pushilin, said separatist forces had already taken control of the Mariupol’s port, in comments reported by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Speaking to South Korea’s National Assembly by video link in an appeal for military assistance, Zelensky said Russia had “completely destroyed” the city and “burned it to ashes”.
“At least tens of thousands of Mariupol citizens must have been killed,” he said.
Russian forces are also turning their focus to the Donbas region in the east, where Zelensky said Russian troops were preparing “even larger operations”.
“They can use even more missiles against us... But we are preparing for their actions. We will answer,” Zelensky said.
Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday warned that the region could suffer as badly as Mariupol.
EU talks sanctions
On the diplomatic front, EU foreign ministers were meeting Monday to discuss a sixth round of sanctions, with concerns that divisions over a ban on Russia gas and oil imports could blunt their impact.
Austria is an EU member, but does not belong to NATO, and Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s spokesman said Brussels, Berlin and Kyiv had been informed about the talks with Putin, held at the president’s residence in Moscow.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said earlier that Nehammer would tell Putin that he “is isolating Russia, that he will lose this war morally, and that he is doing everything wrong that can be done wrong”.
Russia was responsible for an escalating global food crisis because of its bombing of wheat stocks and preventing ships from carrying grain abroad, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said Monday.
The World Bank warned Sunday that Ukraine’s economy would collapse by 45 percent this year - far worse than it predicted even a month ago - while Russia would see an 11-percent decline in GDP.