Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that Russia had adopted a “fundamentally different approach” in talks to end the conflict, as French and German leaders pressed the Russian president to end the days-long and deadly siege of port city of Mariupol.
In a media briefing, Zelensky said that Russia’s new approach was in contrast to earlier talks at which Moscow only “issued ultimatums”.
He said he was “happy to have a signal from Russia” after President Vladimir Putin said he saw “some positive shifts” in their dialogue.
Putin had earlier indicated that negotiations were “now being held on an almost daily basis”.
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have held several rounds of talks since Putin sent in troops to the neighbouring country.
Turkey on Thursday hosted the first talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers since the invasion.
The talks have led to the opening of several humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from combat areas. Both sides have accused each other of blocking these efforts.
This, however, did not discourage France and Germany to urge Putin on Saturday to end the brutal siege of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the French presidency said after three-way talks.
“The situation is very difficult and humanly intolerable” in Mariupol, a source in the Elysee presidential palace said, after what it termed a “very frank and difficult discussion” with the Russian leader.
“The only decision President Putin must take is to lift the siege.” French President Emmanuel Macron’s office also accused Putin of “lies” for alleging that Ukrainian forces had committed human rights abuses by using civilians as human shields.
The 75-minute three-way phone call involving Macron, the Russian leader and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz focussed on France and Germany’s call for an immediate ceasefire and steps towards a diplomatic solution, sources in the French and German leaders’ offices said.
Macron told Putin “the Russian army’s abuses must cease”, the source said, warning that its actions could qualify as war crimes.
They said the two leaders spoke separately before the call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who asked them to call on Putin to halt the fighting.
Russian forces are closing in on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and bombarding several other cities. The offensive has driven millions of Ukrainians from their homes.
The UN said the number of refugees fleeing Ukraine since the Russian invasion began was now nearly 2.6 million. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said there were 2,597,543 refugees who had fled Ukraine so far.
The figure was 92,650 higher than the count on Friday. This is the largest exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II, according to UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi. Four million people could leave Ukraine to flee the war, initial UN estimates said, a figure which will likely be revised upwards, according to the UN refugee agency.
Ukraine voiced hope on Saturday for positive results from Israel’s bid to broker peace with Russia, denying a media report that suggested Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had tried to nudge Kyiv into caving in to Moscow’s demands. Bennett, acting at Ukraine’s behest, held a three-hour Kremlin meeting with President Putin last Saturday.
He has since spoken twice with Putin by phone and four times with President Zelensky, officials say. “I believe (Bennett) can play an important role, because Israel is a country with a lot of history and parallels (to our situation), as well as having a large migration of Jews from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus,” Zelensky said at the briefing.
Earlier on Saturday, a top Ukrainian adviser denied a news report that had suggested Bennett had urged Ukraine to give in to Russia. Israel… “does NOT offer Ukraine to agree to any demands of the Russian Federation”, the adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, tweeted.
“This is impossible for military & political reasons. On the contrary, Israel urges Russia to assess the events more adequately.”
Russian forces, meanwhile, upped pressure on Kyiv on Saturday, pummelling civilian areas in other Ukrainian cities, amid fresh efforts to get aid to the devastated port city of Mariupol. Russian strikes destroyed the airport in the town of Vasylkiv on Saturday morning, about 40 kilometres south of Kyiv, while an oil depot was also hit and caught fire, the mayor said.