Russia has given Ukrainian forces a Monday deadline to surrender control of the besieged port city of Mariupol, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine more than three weeks ago.
In a statement carried by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Moscow’s defence ministry said it was opening humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol from 10am local time on Monday and told Ukrainian forces defending the city to lay down their arms and leave. It demanded Kyiv respond in writing to its ultimatum by 5am on Monday.
Russia — which has framed its invasion as a “special operation” to “liberate” Ukraine — claimed Kyiv was using “Nazis”, “foreign mercenaries” and “bandits” to hold up to 130,000 civilians hostage. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it has denied any responsibility for the overwhelming civilian casualties in Mariupol and blamed them on “provocations” by Ukrainian nationalists.
The ultimatum came as fierce fighting engulfed Mariupol on Sunday, with Russian forces tightening their grip and bombing a school where about 400 residents were sheltering.
The eastern port city has been devastated by relentless shelling, with whole neighbourhoods reduced to piles of smouldering rubble. Electricity, gas and water have been cut off and trapped residents are without food.
Ukraine’s armed forces said the situation was “difficult: there is famine in the city, street fights, people are trying to leave”. Local authorities in Mariupol said “civilians are still under the rubble” after the school bombing.
Russia’s advance in Mariupol came after Kyiv said it had been cut off from the strategically important Sea of Azov, a conduit to the Black Sea. Capturing Mariupol would give the Russians control of a swath of Ukraine’s southern coast.
Kyiv also said Moscow had used its new hypersonic missiles against civilian areas elsewhere in Ukraine, in the first confirmation that the Kremlin had deployed the weapons in the conflict.
Moscow said it used the Kinzhal, which it claims can travel at 10 times the speed of sound, twice in the past three days: to destroy a fuel depot in southern Ukraine and to target a munitions storage facility in the country’s west.
Russia said Andrei Paliy, deputy commander of its Black Sea fleet, had died during the battle for Mariupol. Paliy’s death makes him the seventh high-ranking Russian officer Ukraine claims to have killed during the war.
Meanwhile Turkey, which is mediating alongside Israel between Russia and Ukraine, claimed the two countries were converging on key aspects.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “the parties are close to agreement on fundamental issues”.
“It’s not that easy to negotiate while the war is ongoing, or to agree when civilians are dying. But I want to say that there is momentum,” he said.
Kyiv and its western allies fear Russian president Vladimir Putin could be buying time in peace talks to replenish Moscow’s forces and launch a broader offensive.
Mariupol’s status is a sticking point in the talks because it is part of the Ukrainian-held territory claimed by Moscow-backed separatists, according to two people briefed on the peace efforts.
Turkey’s pro-government Hurriyet newspaper reported that the two countries were edging towards agreement on Kyiv declaring neutrality and abandoning its drive for Nato membership, “demilitarising” Ukraine in exchange for collective security guarantees, what Russia calls “denazification” and lifting restrictions on the use of Russian in Ukraine.
Two people familiar with the discussions said it was likely a compromise would involve token concessions from Kyiv on what Russia calls “denazification”.
But Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, accused Moscow of failing to fully participate in the talks. “The negotiations seem to be one-sided,” she said. “The Russians have not leaned into any possibility for a negotiated and diplomatic solution.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said the talks were worth pursuing even if they had a “1 per cent chance of success” and warned a failure of negotiations would risk “a third world war”.
“We have demonstrated the dignity of our people and our army . . . But unfortunately our dignity is not going to preserve lives. So I think we have to use any format, any chance, in order to have the possibility of negotiating,” he told CNN.
Zelensky said western leaders had told him Ukraine would not be allowed to join Nato or the EU although “publicly, the doors will remain open”.
US president Joe Biden will visit Europe this week to attend Thursday’s Nato summit in Brussels, but will not travel to Ukraine, the White House said on Sunday.
Russia is publicly sticking to the demands Putin made in the first days of the invasion, including vaguely defined calls to “demilitarise” and “denazify” Ukraine. Moscow also wants Kyiv to recognise its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two Russia-backed separatist territories in the eastern Donbas region.
As its invasion has stalled, however, Russia has quietly dropped its vow to remove Zelensky and dialled down suggestions of carving up the country into Moscow-backed fiefdoms and a rump state.
Ukraine has ruled out territorial concessions to Russia and has said negotiations on the areas seized by Moscow before this year would require separate talks between Zelensky and Putin.
A possible agreement would require Russia to announce a ceasefire and withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory to their positions when Putin launched the invasion on February 24.
It is likely a compromise would involve Kyiv making token concessions by banning certain groups or changing the names of streets named after Ukrainian partisans who fought alongside Nazi Germany against the USSR in the second world war, said two people briefed on the talks.
Russia is also likely to soften a demand for Ukraine to make Russian the second official language in the country if Kyiv rolls back laws limiting its use, one of the people added.
Putin has justified the invasion by claiming Russia is liberating Ukraine from Nazis, even though Zelensky is Jewish, and far-right nationalist groups have little influence in the country.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told NBC News it was “far too early” to say whether peace talks could succeed, but emphasised the need to prevent the conflict from becoming “a full-fledged war between Nato and Russia in Europe”.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington