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Russians advance in Ukrainian cities as war deepens and diplomatic efforts fail

An armored convoy of pro-Russian troops travels outside the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in the Donetsk region in Ukraine on March 12. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
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MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — Russian forces continued to grind their way toward Ukrainian cities on Saturday, making limited gains in their attempts to surround Kyiv and capturing a minor city in the country’s south. Despite mounting losses and stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces, Russia showed no signs of letting up, and President Vladimir Putin rejected direct appeals from French and German leaders to de-escalate attacks.

The humanitarian crisis is deepening across the country, with convoys of food and medicine still unable to reach hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped behind Russian lines in the southern city of Mariupol. Polish officials warned that they are running out of capacity to care for the over 1.5 million refugees who have streamed across their borders.

Russian forces captured the city of Volnovakha, a key strategic point on their advance toward Mariupol, with the city’s mayor saying on the Telegram social media app that the city “no longer exists” after withering Russian bombardments. Missiles, bombs and artillery continued to pound Ukrainian cities from Kyiv, the capital, to Kharkiv in the east and Mykolaiv in the south.

As thousands protested the alleged abduction of Melitopol's mayor on March 12, Russian forces also reportedly captured the town of Volnovakha. (Video: The Washington Post)

As the war continued into its third week, the fighting grew only more intense. Despite losing several thousand troops according to U.S. estimates, Russia is still battering Ukraine’s cities, flattening apartment buildings and hampering efforts to address the humanitarian catastrophe. The dire situation is prompting stronger calls from Ukrainian officials for the United States to do more, even as it considers sending more sophisticated anti-air weapons to Ukraine.

Russian attacks have damaged at least nine medical facilities, according to a visual investigation by The Washington Post that looked at over 500 images and videos from the conflict and interviewed experts and witnesses on the ground.

Russian forces are still attempting to surround and seize Kyiv, making “limited but notable” progress in the capital’s northwest suburbs recently, said a senior NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.

“It really does look like the battle for the capital is going to continue to be very drawn out unless the Russians can launch a more concentrated and coherent attack than they’ve yet shown the ability to conduct,” the NATO official said.

In a video message on Saturday night intended to uplift Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelensky assured citizens that the Western world is behind Ukraine. Russia “is an even bigger enemy, bigger evil than North Korea. That’s what Americans think, for example,” he said. He also said that humanitarian aid for the port city of Mariupol, which Russia’s war of attrition has hit particularly hard, was due to arrive Sunday afternoon.

For the past several days, Russian forces have hammered Mariupol while blocking shipments of food and medicine from getting in and stopping residents from getting out. Video published by the Associated Press showed Russian tanks repeatedly firing at an apartment building. And new satellite images released by Maxar Technologies on Saturday show the growing extent of the destruction.

Before-and-after photos show that clusters of large apartment buildings had been hit. Banks of trees and a sports field that were green in the before photos are now burned brown and obscured by smoke, while the apartment buildings that surround them are damaged and surrounded by debris.

In areas that have come under the control of Russian forces, concerns grew that occupying soldiers were beginning to target individual Ukrainian officials.

Russian soldiers detained Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Russian-occupied Melitopol in the country’s south. Video footage shared on social media showed soldiers leading a figure with a hood over his head out of a building in the city. The incident prompted residents to gather in protest, chanting, “Bring back the mayor! Bring back the mayor!” and “Freedom to the mayor! Freedom to the mayor!” according to videos posted to social media.

Since Russia took the city two weeks ago, Fedorov had encouraged residents to protest. Russian propaganda has painted Ukrainians as being dominated by a minority of neo-Nazis and nationalists, and Putin has stated one of the goals of his invasion is the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, prompting fears that individual Ukrainians will be targeted for arrest and attacks under Russian occupation. Fedorov, an ethnic Russian, was accused by Russia of supporting violence against innocent people in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky called the alleged abduction “a crime against democracy” and demanded Russia release him.

World leaders, including Pope Francis, called on Russia to end its invasion. “In the name of God, stop!” the pontiff posted on Twitter Saturday.

“Never war!” he wrote. “Think first about the children, about those who are deprived of the hope for a dignified life: dead or wounded children, orphans, children who play with the remnants of war.”

Putin held a testy phone call with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday regarding the attack on Ukraine, which appears to have yielded little result and hope for de-escalation.

French officials said after the call that the Russian leader showed no desire to stop the war, adding that the conversation was “very frank and difficult.” Macron and Scholz called for an immediate cease-fire and “the end of the siege of Mariupol,” where the situation is “devastating.”

Russia’s version of the call, however, described discussions among the leaders over the humanitarian situation in cities under siege from Russian troops, as officials continued to warn the West against providing added munitions aid to Ukrainians.

Putin “informed the leaders about the real state of affairs,” the statement said, and accused the Ukrainian forces of the “grossest violation of the norms of international humanitarian law” without providing any evidence, including “placing heavy weapons in residential areas, near hospitals.”

Russian attacks hit at least 9 Ukrainian medical facilities, visual evidence shows

But the United States and other NATO countries are readying to step up their efforts to provide Ukraine with more weapons to fend off the invasion. President Biden on Saturday authorized an additional $200 million in military aid, adding to the $350 million sent earlier this month.

U.S. officials said Friday they were also discussing with European allies how to get heavier weapons to Ukraine, including sophisticated surface-to-air missiles capable of knocking Russian planes out of the sky. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is slated to meet in the coming week with NATO allies in Brussels and Slovakia, which possesses the S-300 missile system and has signaled willingness to share weapons with Ukraine.

A top Russian diplomat warned that convoys carrying U.S. and NATO weapons inside Ukraine were “legitimate targets.” Since the invasion began, Ukraine’s allies have flown weapons to air bases in neighboring countries where they are trucked over the border.

There has been a notable decrease in the past few days in the number of Russian military flights and air attacks in Ukraine, potentially signaling that Ukraine’s air defenses are still effectively shooting down enemy planes, the NATO official said.

Russia also admitted that it was deploying conscripts to Ukraine, something it had denied in the early days of the war. Putin claimed the Russian military had recruited 16,000 foreign fighters from the Middle East, according to a Saturday update from the U.K. Defense Ministry. NATO has seen reported appearances of Chechen troops and former private military contractors among the force surrounding Kyiv.

“That may indicate that they’re still struggling to assemble sufficient conventional power to try to launch that assault on the capital,” the NATO official said.

In a notable development, nine of the 14 proposed corridors to provide civilians safe passage out of bombarded cities worked as designed, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a video message. She added that nearly 13,000 people were moved Saturday, nearly twice the amount who had made it out of a smaller number of cities the day before. But evacuation attempts from Mariupol remained impeded, she said.

For days, Ukrainian convoys have tried to get into Mariupol, but have been turned back by Russian shelling. In Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian city northwest of Mariupol, Yulia Karaulan boarded a truck that would try to get in. Karaulan was out of the country on a business trip when the invasion began, and is desperately trying to reunite with her husband, mother and 10-year-old daughter who are in Mariupol, she told The Post.

Local officials have said more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Mariupol, though the death toll is impossible to verify. Drinking water has been cut off, and there are accounts of looting and lawlessness in the streets. Municipal workers have dug mass graves.

A mother’s mission: Reach her family stranded in Ukraine’s ravaged Mariupol

Still, Ukrainian forces are keeping up the fight in the city. A Russian general was killed in fighting around Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said Saturday. The officer was identified as Russian Maj. Gen. Andrei Kolesnikov, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.

Russian major generals are roughly equivalent in rank to American one-star or brigadier generals.

Kolesnikov was not identified by name, though a Western official on Friday confirmed that three Russian generals have been killed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion two weeks ago. The most recent general was a commander of the Eastern Military District. Russian officials have shared few details on the number of casualties among its forces, including ranking officers.

Russian forces surrounding Mariupol continued their siege on March 12 while people sought shelter in crowded hospital halls. (Video: AP)

Across the country, more Ukrainians are continuing to flee, while those who remain struggle to find vital medical supplies. Every morning after curfews lift, lines form outside pharmacies across the country. Telegram groups have formed to help people find the medicines they need, but many are coming up short.

In Kyiv, Tetyana Dagadaeva lined up again, hoping to find the insulin her 11-year-old son needs to survive. This time, there was none. “My son’s life depends on this,” she told The Post. “The situation is really bad.”

Russian forces near Kyiv appeared to be cutting off water and food supplies as part of their strategy, the senior NATO official said. That could lead to a desperate situation in the city within two weeks, the official said.

‘My son’s life depends on this’: A desperate search for insulin in Kyiv as medicines disappear

In the nearby village of Peremoha, about 18 miles east of Kyiv, Russian troops fired at civilians attempting to flee, killing seven people, including a child, according to Ukraine’s intelligence service. The incident could not immediately be independently verified.

The group was forced to return to their village.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians, but a growing number of Western officials are raising questions about possible war crimes. Nearly a week ago, Russian forces fired mortar shells at another town on the outskirts of Kyiv, sending panicked residents running for their lives and killing at least eight people, including three members of a family, according to a local government official.

Those who have been able to leave Ukraine are streaming into the cities of neighboring countries, prompting urgent requests for international help. The mayors of Poland’s two biggest cities — Warsaw and Krakow — said they are struggling to accommodate the influx of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have sought refuge.

More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have left the country since the invasion began Feb. 24, including 1.5 million who have gone to Poland.

Poland’s two largest cities warn they can no longer absorb Ukrainian refugees

In Russia, the government stepped up restrictions on social media, shutting down Instagram, which along with Facebook is owned by tech giant Meta. Instagram is highly popular with young Russians and had been a forum for some dissent against the government, even as the country passed strict new limits on political speech. Google-owned YouTube said it would block Russian state media channels globally, cutting off a key way Russian authorities have spread their message to millions of people around the world.

The exodus of Western businesses from Russia and steep sanctions from the United States and E.U. is continuing to cause economic turmoil inside the country.

On Saturday, Russia’s central bank said on its website that it had decided to put off reopening the country’s stock market on Monday, delaying it to at least March 18, according to Reuters. The market has been closed since the day after Russia began its invasion on Feb. 24.

Loveday Morris in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine; Rick Noack in Paris; Karla Adam in London; Reis Thebault, Rachel Pannett, Timothy Bella, Kim Bellware and Marisa Iati in Washington; and Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.