Ukrainian authorities had identified routes agreed on with Moscow for the safe exit of civilians, but previous cease-fires have mostly failed.
As basic survival in Ukraine grows increasingly precarious, civilian evacuation efforts resumed Wednesday across a country battered by a relentless Russian assault that officials said destroyed a children’s hospital Wednesday.
Ukraine’s government had announced a daylong cease-fire, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., along several corridors around the country that were designated for the safe exit of residents. The routes covered some of the hardest-hit areas, including parts of Kyiv, the capital; Sumy in the northeast; and the strategic port city of Mariupol in the south.
But late Wednesday afternoon, the Mariupol City Council said a Russian strike had hit a children’s hospital and caused huge damage. President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said children lay in the wreckage, called the attack an atrocity and appealed again to the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The incident added to the misery of a blockaded city where hungry residents have begun breaking into stores and officials opened a mass grave to bury around 70 soldiers and civilians killed in recent days, the Associated Press reported.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Moscow had agreed to the temporary truce for evacuations, but Ukrainian officials were skeptical that Russian forces would respect the agreement. Previous cease-fire deals were effectively stillborn because of continued Russian shelling along the so-called humanitarian corridors, Ukraine says, with only the one from Sumy to the city of Poltava seeing an appreciable numbers of evacuees.
“Hundreds of people were saved. The humanitarian corridor was delivered,” Zelensky said earlier Wednesday. “But that’s only 1% of what needs to be done.”
He blamed the breakdown of past cease-fire agreements on Russian “savages” who kept up their attacks on defenseless civilians, and he urged patience among his compatriots who are trying to reach safety.
“Humanitarian corridors will still work,” Zelensky said. “And only time separates you from freedom.”
Ukrainian officials also said Wednesday that the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant — the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, in 1986 — had lost access to the power grid, forcing it to rely on backup generators. Authorities called for a halt to fighting in the area, which is under Russian control, to allow for repairs, lest the plant suffer a catastrophic interruption to the cooling of radioactive material.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been informed of the loss of electricity but saw “no critical impact on safety.” Utility company Ukrenergo said “military actions” meant there was currently “no possibility to restore” the plant’s connection to the grid. The company said the nearby town of Slavutych was also out of power.
The ominous developments came a day after President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would ban imports of Russian oil and gas. The sanctions targeting one of Russia’s most lucrative industries are part of a wider international effort to isolate the country from the world economy and sap its ability to wage war in Ukraine.
In recent days, a number of high-profile U.S. businesses have said that they would temporarily close locations in Russia or stop selling their products there, including McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola.
The U.S., which has imposed sanctions on Russian financial institutions and individuals, including President Vladimir Putin, has looked for creative ways to support Ukraine without being drawn into a wider war.
Vice President Kamala Harris is traveling to Poland for a three-day trip aimed at shoring up transatlantic efforts to isolate Russia. And congressional leaders reached an agreement Wednesday on a spending bill that includes $13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine.
The bill allocates more than $4 billion to assist with the mass exodus of Ukrainians from their country and nearly $7 billion to cover the transfer of U.S. military equipment to Ukraine and its allies, as well as the deployment of American troops and equipment to nearby countries.
Zelensky, whose frequent video addresses in his military-olive T-shirt have endeared him to his people for their mix of defiance and encouragement, thanked Biden for his decision to ban Russian oil and gas imports.
“I’m grateful personally to U.S. President Biden for this decision, for his leadership, for this most powerful signal to the whole world,” Zelensky said. “It is very simple: Every penny paid to Russia turns into bullets and shells which are directed at other sovereign states.”
Hopes of moving more Ukrainians out of the way of those bullets and shells were revived with the announcement of six evacuation corridors to allow residents to leave the embattled cities of Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha in the south, Izyum in the east, Sumy in the northeast and several towns around Kyiv.
The routes all lead to other parts of Ukraine, following anger over Moscow’s former offer of safe routes that would funnel refugees to Russia itself and to its ally Belarus, which was a launch pad for invading forces from the north.
The mayor of Irpin, a hard-hit Kyiv suburb, said priority would be given to women and children at various assembly points where buses would be waiting to ferry them to safety.
“It is possible to leave in your own car as part of the convoy, so come to the indicated addresses!” the mayor said on his Facebook page. “Please spread this information as much as possible!!!”
More than 2.1 million people have already fled Ukraine, the United Nations says, making it Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II. Most have gone west, to Poland and Hungary, in such numbers that others are now heading south, to Romania, to avoid the bottleneck.
Despite spirited resistance from both regular and irregular Ukrainian fighters, Russian troops continue to try to draw the net tighter around key cities. The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Russian forces were placing equipment at farms and residences around Chernihiv, about 85 miles northeast of Kyiv.
Residents of Chernihiv have been leaving the city to escape the heavy fighting there, with some reporting that it was now under de facto Russian control. With the highway to Kyiv cut, those fleeing traversed back roads through small towns and villages.
Here in Kozelets, about halfway between Chernihiv and Kyiv, nervous villagers trained a machine gun at every passing car on the highway to the capital.
“Yesterday we had more than 100 refugees pass by from Chernihiv,” said Irina, an administrator in Kozelets who gave only her first name.
At a small local hospital, Andre Kholyavko, 32, was recovering from shrapnel wounds to his right arm, which lay bandaged and scarred by his side. Kholyavko left Chernihiv on the second day of the invasion, evacuating his mother, wife and 4-year-old son to Slabin, a small village outside the city.
“The day we left there more than a hundred strikes,” he said.
But the Russian shells followed him: Late last week, as he collected wood with his son and her sister, the rockets started raining down. “I barely had time to cover my son,” he recalled.
In southern Ukraine, the military general staff said Russian soldiers disguised as civilians were trying to infiltrate Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding hub whose capture would be key to establishing a stranglehold along the Black and Azov seas. Kherson, about 40 miles southeast of Mykolaiv, is now under Russian control — the only significant city so far to fall, at least officially, since the invasion began Feb. 24.
The Russians had overrun Mykolaiv’s airport, but it was retaken by Ukrainian forces, the region’s governor, Vitaliy Kim, said earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Kim said food and water supplies remained stable, but some residents were leaving because of the attacks from the air.
“That’s why people are moving to the west — not because we have any humanitarian catastrophe,” Kim told the BBC. “They are afraid of bombs.”
He sounded an optimistic note on the ability of his city to hold out under the constant barrage.
“We’re going to defend and attack also. The enemy is very exhausted — he is without diesel and without ammo, no motivation,” Kim said. “So I think the situation is not very bad for us.”
Bulos reported from Kozelets, Chu from London and Linthicum from Mexico City.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.