Ukrainian soldiers in their trenches preparing to face Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers man their trenches in anticipation of a Russian assault on Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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New Russian cease-fire offer greeted with scorn as shelling of Ukraine cities continues

Two previous cease-fires went nowhere, trapping hundreds of thousands of people trying to flee Ukrainian cities under heavy assault by Russian forces.

Russia announced a new cease-fire Monday to allow civilians to escape four Ukrainian beleaguered cities amid deep distrust that its forces will honor the pledge as they hammer strategic centers across the country.

Two previous cease-fires hardly got off the ground before Ukrainian officials said continued Russian shelling rendered them meaningless. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians remain trapped; some have died while trying to flee, including an entire family killed on a suburban Kyiv road that President Volodymyr Zelensky likened to “a shooting gallery” for invading troops.

The new cease-fire announcement Monday applies to the capital, Kyiv; Ukraine’s second-most populous city, Kharkiv, which has come under sustained assault since the war began 12 days ago; Sumy in the northeast, near the Russian border; and the southern port city of Mariupol, which is essentially blockaded.

But the fact that most of the allowed corridors would funnel refugees to Russia itself and to its ally Belarus — from which Russian troops rolled into northern Ukraine — drew scathing rejoinders from Ukrainian and Western officials.

“This is an unacceptable option for opening humanitarian corridors,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said at a news briefing. The Ukrainian government has proposed alternative routes.

“Providing evacuation routes into the arms of the country that is currently destroying yours is a nonsense,” said James Cleverly, Britain’s minister for Europe.

Almost all of the more than 1.7 million people who have escaped Ukraine in the last two weeks have gone west, to countries such as Poland and Hungary, in what the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The exodus amounts to almost 4% of Ukraine’s entire population — akin to about 12.7 million Americans fleeing the U.S.

Another southern Ukrainian city, Mykolaiv, awoke to renewed shelling Monday, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich wrote on Facebook.

Taking over Mykolaiv has been a Russian objective for several days, as the city could serve as a key staging ground for a large-scale offensive against Odesa, which lies about 75 miles to the southwest and is Ukraine’s most vital access point to the Black Sea.

Evacuees outside Kyiv, Ukraine
Evacuees prepare to board buses Sunday after the Ukrainian town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, was bombarded by Russian artillery.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Senkevich accused Russian forces of deliberately targeting civilian apartment buildings, saying that attacks overnight had left wide swaths of the city without heat. He posted a video showing what looked like a residential building, its center blackened by a blazing fire presumably caused by a shell.

Emergency crews were at work restoring service, he said. But he warned that there was a lot of unexploded ordnance around the city and that residents should keep their distance until authorities could remove them.

Reflecting the desperate circumstances facing civilians in suburbs northwest of Kyiv, authorities in Bucha, a town recently taken over by the Russian army, told residents not to try to escape on their own. The town’s mayor was wounded during the attempt to set up a safe corridor, Ukraine’s foreign ministry reported.

“We emphasize and warn that if you try to evacuate yourself, the chances of survival are 50/50,” said a post on the Bucha City Council’s official Facebook page. “DO NOT evacuate on your own!”

Both the two failed cease-fires had included Mariupol, where officials say Russian pummeling has taken a grievous toll in human life and on key infrastructure, cutting off water, electricity and food and medical supplies. Nearly half the city’s 430,000 residents are trying to flee, according to one estimate, but only a small fraction have succeeded.

In Kharkiv, authorities said Monday that 209 people, more than half of them civilians, have been killed in the city since the invasion began.

The latest pledge from Moscow to allow people to escape Mariupol, Kharkiv and other areas followed a phone call Sunday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has spoken to Putin more than any other Western leader in the last few weeks.

Ukrainian refugees at a Polish train station
Ukrainian refugees gather at the main train station in Przemysl, Poland, on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

But Ukrainians are highly dubious of Russian promises.

“There can be no ‘green corridors’ because only the sick brain of the Russians decides when to start shooting and at whom,” Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukrainian Interior Ministry, said on the Telegram messaging app.

Skepticism also hovers over a third round of talks between Ukraine and Russia scheduled for later Monday. Putin has repeatedly insisted that he would end hostilities only if Kyiv capitulates to all his demands, which include a renunciation of any intention to try to join NATO.

For his part, Zelensky has implored NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and grown increasingly angry over its rebuff of his request, which the transatlantic alliance says could lead to a larger, even more catastrophic armed confrontation between the West and Russia.

In a video address Monday, Zelensky also called for an international boycott of Russian oil, one of Moscow’s most important sources of revenue.

“If the invasion continues and Russia does not abandon its plans against Ukraine, then we need a new sanctions package,” Zelensky said. “The international community must act even more decisively.”

On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said U.S. lawmakers were exploring such a ban. Heavy Western sanctions have already delivered a blow to Russia’s economy, with the ruble plunging in value, multinational companies pulling out and the Moscow stock exchange all but frozen, and some U.S. officials have called for more.

“We’re raising the cost on the Kremlin and all who aid and enable it for continuing this war of choice,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday during a visit to Lithuania, adding: “We want this to come to a stop as quickly as possible, which is why we’ll continue to increase pressure on Russia, continue to support Ukraine.”

Putin warned over the weekend that the West’s economic crackdown was close to a “declaration of war.”

He launched the incursion Feb. 24 baselessly claiming that Ukraine’s democratically elected leadership was a neo-Nazi cabal bent on wiping out ethnic Russians in the country’s east. On Monday, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry told reporters that 2,396 “military infrastructure facilities” had been destroyed in Ukraine since the start of the “special operation” — Russia’s term for the invasion of its neighbor.

The targets included command posts, anti-aircraft missile systems, radar stations, tanks and other materiel, the Russian state news agency Tass said.

Putin has ignored international condemnation of the invasion, and in keeping with that pattern, Russian representatives were a no-show at a hearing Monday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Kyiv accused Moscow of war crimes.

Although there is little reason to think the Kremlin would heed a call by the court to desist, Ukraine’s representative, Anton Korynevych, appealed to the judges to order Russia to halt its attacks.

Putin has also sought to keep a tight lid on information about the conflict’s costs. Moscow has acknowledged the deaths of nearly 500 Russian soldiers. But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Monday that the Russian army has lost more than 11,000 service personnel, more than 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles, and more than 100 aircraft and helicopters. The figures could not be independently verified.

The U.S. estimates that 95% of the forces Russia had massed near Ukraine before the invasion are now in the country. Russia’s firepower and troop numbers are vastly superior to those of Ukraine, which has nonetheless put up determined resistance.

“Even if and as Russia might win a battle in Ukraine, that doesn’t mean it’s winning the war,” Blinken said. “If and as Russia might take a city in Ukraine, that doesn’t mean that it’s taking the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people. It can’t; it won’t.”

Blinken accused Russian troops of targeting civilians, an allegation Putin denies, although Russian forces and their proxies leveled cities during conflicts in Chechnya and Syria at the cost of thousands of lives.

With the Kremlin in effect banning independent reporting on the war at home, many in Russia have accepted the government line on the invasion. But the war has not been without domestic opposition: Protests around the country Sunday, from Siberia to St. Petersburg, resulted in the arrests of more than 4,600 people, according to the rights group OVD-Info.

Bulos reported from Kyiv and Chu from London. Times staff writer Laura King in Washington contributed.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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