Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a video address in Ukraine on Saturday. AFP
Russian forces have taken heavy losses and their advance has largely stalled since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the assault on Feb. 24, with long columns of troops that bore down on Kyiv halted in its suburbs.
However, they have laid siege to cities, blasting urban areas to rubble, and in recent days have intensified missile attacks on scattered targets in western Ukraine, away from the main battlefields in the north and east of the country.
Over 3.3m refugees
More than 3.3 million refugees have already fled Ukraine through its western border, with around 2 more million displaced inside the country.
Efforts to evacuate civilians from cities under siege through "humanitarian corridors" continued.
Ukrainian authorities said they hoped to open 10 such evacuation routes on Saturday.
Unprecedented Western sanctions aimed at crippling Russia's economy and starving its war machine have yet to halt what Putin calls a "special operation" to disarm its neighbour and purge it of "Nazis."
Kyiv and its allies have called this a baseless pretext for war.
Ukraine's defence ministry acknowledged on Friday it had "temporarily" lost access to the Azov Sea, a strategic link with the Black Sea, after Russia said it was "tightening the noose" around the besieged southern port of Mariupol.
Hundreds of thousands have been trapped there for over two weeks with power, water and heat supplies cut off. Its Soviet-era apartment blocks blasted into burned out shells and covered-up uncollected bodies amid the rubble are a common sight. Local officials say fighting has reached the city centre and heavy shelling kept humanitarian aid from getting in.
Rescue workers were still searching for survivors of a Mariupol theatre that authorities say was flattened by Russian air strikes on Wednesday. Russia denies hitting the theatre and says it is not targeting civilians.
Russia to accomplish mission
In defiant mood, Putin on Friday promised flag-waving crowds at a soccer stadium in Moscow that Russia would "absolutely accomplish all of our plans".
Zelensky said refusal to compromise would come at a steep price.
"I want everyone to hear me now, especially in Moscow. The time has come for a meeting, it is time to talk," he said in a video address early on Saturday.
"The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia's losses will be such that it will take you several generations to recover."
Russia last acknowledged on March 2 that nearly 500 of its soldiers had been killed and has offered no updates since; Ukraine says the number by now has reached many thousands. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the death count.
Interfax quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying Moscow expected its operation in Ukraine to end with a signing of an comprehensive agreement on security issues, including Ukraine's neutral status.
Kyiv and Moscow reported some progress in talks this week towards a political formula that would guarantee Ukraine's security, while keeping it outside Nato, though both sides accused each other of dragging things out.
A day after US President Joe Biden warned China against helping Russia attack Ukraine in a video call with President Xi Jinping, Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying ties between Moscow and Beijing would only become stronger in such circumstances.
China says it wants to see an end to the conflict and both Beijing and Moscow deny discussing military aid, but Washington is worried a potential lifeline from a major power that has not condemned the assault could blunt the sanctions' impact.
He urged the West to give Ukraine tanks, planes and missiles to help fend off the Russian forces, which the Kyiv government said were increasingly targeting fuel and food depots.
Zelensky announced the sacking of Ukraine's ambassadors to Germany, India, the Czech Republic, Norway and Hungary and said new candidates were being readied for the positions. "This rotation is a normal part of diplomatic practice."
"I had a phone call with PM Narendra Modi and wished a successful G20 presidency," Zelensky wrote on Twitter. Modi also "strongly reiterated" his call for an immediate end to hostilities in Ukraine and conveyed India's support for any peace efforts.
“As the initiator and main instigator of the Ukrainian crisis, Washington, while imposing unprecedented comprehensive sanctions on Russia, continues to supply arms and military equipment to Ukraine,” Zhang was quoted as saying.
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