LVIV: Ukraine accused Russia on Wednesday of breaking a ceasefire to prevent the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged port of Mariupol, where the Red Cross has described conditions as “apocalyptic”.
Russia said it would hold fire to let civilians flee besieged cities, but efforts to evacuate Mariupol appeared to have failed again, as have several previous attempts since Saturday.
“Russia continues holding hostage over 400,000 people in Mariupol, blocks humanitarian aid and evacuation. Indiscriminate shelling continues,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. “Almost 3,000 newborn babies lack medicine and food.”
Local officials in other cities said some civilians had left on Wednesday through safe corridors, including out of Sumy in eastern Ukraine and Enerhodar in the south.
However, Russian forces were preventing a convoy of 50 buses from evacuating civilians from the town of Bucha outside Kyiv, local authorities said in an online post, adding that talks continued to allow the convoy to leave.
Both sides have accused each other of violating ceasefires that would allow to evacuate Mariupol, which Russian forces have kept under siege for more than a week.
On Tuesday, the Red Cross called conditions inside the city “apocalyptic”, with residents sheltering underground from relentless bombardment, with no access to food, water, power or heat.
More than 2 million people have fled Ukraine since President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion nearly two weeks ago. Moscow calls its action a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbour and dislodge leaders it calls “neo-Nazis.”
Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss that as a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war against a democratic country of 44 million people.
In recent days, Russia has also accused Ukraine of having tried to develop biological or nuclear weapons. On Wednesday, the Kremlin said Washington must explain “Ukrainian biological weapons labs”. Washington has already dismissed that claim as “absurd propaganda” and accused Russia of seeking retroactive pretexts for the war.
Ukraine’s nuclear power plant operator said it was concerned for safety at Chernobyl, mothballed site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, where it said a power cut caused by fighting meant spent nuclear fuel could not be cooled.
“Reserve diesel generators have a 48-hour capacity,” foreign minister Kuleba tweeted. “After that, cooling systems of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel will stop, making radiation leaks imminent.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement the heat generated by the spent fuel and the volume of cooling water were such that it was “sufficient for effective heat removal without need for electrical supply.”
The war has swiftly cast Russia into economic isolation never before visited on such a large economy.
The United States said on Tuesday it was banning imports of Russian oil, a major policy change after energy was previously exempted from sanctions, while Western companies kept pulling out from the Russian market.
In a stark symbol, McDonalds said on Tuesday it was shutting its nearly 850 restaurants in Russia. Its first, which drew huge queues to Moscow’s Pushkin Square when it opened in 1990, had been an emblem of the end of the Cold War.
Starbucks , Coca-Cola, Pepsi and others made similar announcements. Heineken HEIN.AS, the world’s second-largest brewer, stopped production and sales in Russia and said it was assessing options for its operations there.
Russia’s ruling United Russia party said it proposed seizing the assets of foreign companies that leave.
“We will take tough retaliatory measures, acting in accordance with the laws of war,” Andrei Turchak, secretary of the party’s council, wrote on its website.
Banishing Russia, the world’s top exporter of combined oil and gas, from markets is sending shockwaves through the global economy at a time when inflation in the developed world is already at levels not seen since the 1980s. Retail fuel pump prices have surged to records.
Both Ukraine and Russia are also huge exporters of food and metals. Together they account for nearly a third of the global grain trade, which even dwarfs Russia’s role in energy. Prices of food staples have soared worldwide, punishing far-flung countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Ukraine said on Wednesday it was halting key agricultural exports for the rest of the year. Russia too said it needed to maintain domestic supplies of grain. In the latest sign of what was rapidly becoming a global food crisis, Indonesia said it would curb sales of palm oil after global prices surged.
Trade in nickel, critical in electric vehicle production, was called off on Tuesday in London after the price more than doubled.
Supply shortages caused by the war forced Volkswagen to halt new orders for plug-in hybrid vehicles in Germany from Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden acknowledged that Americans’ bills would rise but said the crude import ban was necessary to restrict Russia’s ability to wage war.
“The American people will deal another powerful blow to Putin’s war machine,” he said.
Britain said it would phase out Russian oil by the end of 2022, while the European Union published plans to cut its reliance on Russian gas by two thirds this year.
High oil prices prompted by Russia’s invasion could cut a full percentage point off the growth of big developing economies such as China, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey, a World Bank official said.
Western countries believe Moscow had aimed to quickly topple the Kyiv govenrment in a lightning strike, and is being forced to adjust after underestimating Ukrainian resistance. Russia has taken substantial territory in the south but has yet to capture any major cities in northern or eastern Ukraine, with an assault force stalled on a highway north of Kyiv.
Russia is desperate for some kind of victory in cities like Mariupol and Kyiv, before it negotiates, Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “Therefore, our task is to withstand for the next 7-10 days,” he said.
Ukrainians fear the next big target will be Odessa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port. Residents are preparing to defend the historic city of 1 million, a polyglot centre of culture with wide resonance for Ukrainians and Russians alike. A giant blue and yellow banner reading “Odessa-Ukraine” was draped atop sandbags in the near-deserted city centre.
“We did not surrender Odessa to Hitler, and we will not surrender it to anyone else,” said Galyna Zitser, director of the Odessa Philharmonic, which on Tuesday performed for the first time since the crisis began.