The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fierce fighting continues across Ukraine as Zelensky calls for ‘meaningful negotiations’

Nearly 10 million have fled or been displaced as Russia shells civilian targets; at least 40 killed in Russian strike on military barracks

People gather in a basement bomb shelter during an air raid in Lviv in western Ukraine on March 19. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Lviv has been a refuge, the last outpost before Poland and host to hundreds of thousands of fleeing Ukrainians. (Bernat Armangue/AP)
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ZAPORIZHZHIA, UKRAINE — President Volodymyr Zelensky defiantly told Moscow the time had come for “meaningful negotiations on peace” as a barrage of Russian attacks continued across his nation over the weekend.

At least 40 people were killed when a Russian bomb hit the barracks of a military facility in the city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine on Friday morning, according to journalists who documented the scene hours after the attack. Images verified by The Washington Post showed a multistory building folding inward on itself as giant plumes of smoke rise above it.

Vitaliy Kim, the governor of the surrounding Mykolaiv region, acknowledged the strike in a Telegram message Saturday. The Russians “viciously fired rockets at sleeping soldiers,” the caption read. He declined to state the number of soldiers dead or injured, saying he was waiting on the armed forces to provide an accurate count.

As Ukrainian forces continued to hold off Russian attempts to advance on the capital of Kyiv, Zelensky stepped up his effort to resolve the war through diplomacy, telling Moscow, “It’s time to meet. Time to talk.”

He added that it was “time to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s losses will be so huge that several generations will not be enough to rebound.”

There was no immediate response from Moscow, which has been frustrated in its effort to enter Kyiv and topple Zelensky’s government. As Russian tank columns stalled in the wake of Ukrainian resistance, which relied significantly on U.S.-supplied weapons, Moscow continued its strategy of siege and terror, killing civilians, bombing apartment buildings and kidnapping local officials. President Biden has called out such tactics, saying they amount to war crimes.

The United Nations said that about 9.8 million of Ukraine’s 44 million people have fled or been internally displaced. Ten humanitarian corridors were opened Saturday to help civilians flee, according to Ukrainian officials. About 1.5 million children have fled Ukraine in the three weeks since Russia’s invasion, prompting the U.N. agency UNICEF to warn that they face a heightened risk of being trafficked or exploited.

A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at a pro-war rally at which he showed no sign of compromise, Moscow claimed it had for the first time fired a Kinzhal hypersonic missile, a long-range weapon that it says could not be intercepted by a defense system. Moscow said the missile was used to attack an underground arms depot in western Ukraine, a claim that had not been verified.

Thousands of people in recent days have fled Mariupol, where Russia on Wednesday bombed a theater where hundreds of citizens had taken shelter. While 130 people were reported to have been rescued, the fate of others who may have been buried beneath rubble was unclear as continued warfare in the city hindered rescue operations.

Satellite imagery collected Saturday showed the extent of the damage at the Mariupol Drama Theater, with more than half the roof collapsed and the remaining portion buckled inward. The Russian word for “children” had been written in large white letters on both sides of the building, a plea to Russians not to bomb the structure. After the attack, the word remained visible on one side of the theater, according to the image provided to The Post by Maxar Technologies.

New satellite imagery shows bombed-out Mariupol theater

Mariupol residents who fled over the weekend to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, 140 miles to the northwest, described fierce street fighting in areas downtown, with Ukrainian forces still in control of the area around the port. Russian tanks were in the city, according to officials and local residents, who described a front line near the theater downtown. Some of those who escaped the battered city have said Russian soldiers appeared at their door to check documents.

“Half of the city is the DNR,” said Vladimir, 47, who fled his home in the port area of the city on Friday, referring to Russian-backed separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic in the eastern part of the country. “Half is Ukrainian.”

He said his family of five had sheltered in their basement as the fighting grew closer in recent days. They left when the adjoining building caught fire after an explosion, arriving Saturday in Zaporizhzhia, where they spoke at a way station providing food and aid for those fleeing.

“Russians and Chechens are everywhere,” he said. With communications cut, such claims are difficult to verify, but a city official said Friday that it is hard to determine who controls which area. Thousands have made it out of the city as front lines have shifted in recent days.

One family who fled from the north of Mariupol’s central district said Russian tanks were parked beside their house this past week, with soldiers entering to check their documents.

They said they did not see a Ukrainian soldier from the time they left their home until approaching Zaporizhzhia.

Others said they fled through destroyed streets without seeing any soldiers. “I didn’t see boots on the ground,” said Maksym, 35, who left on Thursday from an area near the city’s factories. “Just debris and explosions.”

Vladimir and Maksym declined to give their last names because of fear of repercussions for relatives left behind.

A number of men leaving Mariupol described being pulled out of vehicles at Russian-controlled checkpoints by soldiers looking for tattoos and signs they might be in the military.

“They were checking every man,” said Katya, 31, who didn’t want her last name to be published because her husband is still at home serving in the national guard. She said the soldiers were searching for nationalist tattoos that might indicate men are part of Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion, which is fighting for the city. Her brother-in-law was taken out of the car and made to undress, she said, with lines at checkpoints stretching so long because of the screenings that at one point they only moved around 12 miles in 12 hours.

They also checked for calluses on men’s hands that might show they are fighting, she said. “Everyone has them because they’ve been cutting wood and building fires,” she said.

Ukraine hoped to evacuate people on Saturday through 10 humanitarian corridors out of urban areas on the front lines with Russian forces, according to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

In a video, she said evacuation attempts would resume near the southern port of Mariupol, where a Russian siege has choked the city and fighting has thwarted efforts to help residents flee. She also announced plans to try to deliver 14 trucks of aid to Kherson on the Black Sea, one of the first Ukrainian cities that Russian forces advanced on.

She said some residents have escaped Mariupol on foot and would be bused farther away. “All residents of Mariupol who leave the city on foot are being given the necessary aid,” she said. An adviser to the Mariupol mayor’s office said Friday that rescue operations were moving “very slowly” because of fighting in the city center.

The corridors should also allow residents to leave some parts of the wider Kyiv region that have come under attack, as well as residents of the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, Vereshchuk added.

“Please be attentive, inhabitants of residential areas, because it is exceptionally difficult to open the corridors,” she said. “The enemy is treacherously breaking our agreements, so I ask you: If you have the opportunity, use it today.”

It remained unclear, meanwhile, whether Biden’s effort to stop China from supplying war-related aid to Russia had been successful, as tensions between Washington and Beijing continued.

Biden, who has supported billions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine but rejected its request for a no-fly zone, on Friday held a two-hour video meeting with China’s president, telling Xi Jinping that there would be unspecified consequences if Beijing “provides material support to Russia” in the war.

On Saturday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, who said he had visited Ukraine many times, including during a cross-country road trip, reiterated Beijing’s view that the conflict “is not what we wish under any circumstances.” But he criticized Western sanctions against Russia and called NATO a “Cold War vestige” that should have been “consigned to history” after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

“Some big countries do not want to get dragged into conflicts and bring harm to themselves, so they make empty promises to small countries, turn small countries into their cat’s paw and even use them to fight proxy wars,” he said.

“A NATO commitment of no eastward expansion could have easily ended the crisis and stopped the sufferings,” Le added. “Instead, one chose to fan the flames at a safe distance.”

At the same time, without saying whether he was referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Le said: “Countries should respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and refuse to do unto others what they would not want for themselves. Every country has the right to pursue a development path chosen by itself. Imposition or interference in others’ internal affairs should be rejected, and there is no need for ‘saviors’ or ‘lecturers.’”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, during a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, said “Russia’s aggression has galvanized the Ukrainian people, NATO and the free world.”

Austin, asked to assess Russia’s progress in taking southern areas of Ukraine, near where it annexed Crimea, said that “they continue to make incremental gains” and decried the “brutal, savage” targeting of civilians.

“The amount of pain that the civilians have endured down there is — it’s just been hard” to watch, Austin said.

Asked whether Russia plans soon to try to take Odessa or nearby cities on a crucial stretch of coastline of the Black Sea, where Ukrainians have spent much of the war preparing defenses, Austin said, “I can’t speak to Russian planning, I would just say that we don’t see indications of that right now.”

Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday evening that Russians haven’t been very effective in the war over the skies.

“Russia has failed to gain control of the air and is largely relying on stand-off weapons launched from the relative safety of Russian airspace to strike targets within Ukraine,” the ministry said in a tweet.

Zelensky has said since the war began that he wants to discuss peace terms with Putin, and representatives of both sides have been meeting regularly without reaching an agreement. Putin outlined conditions for a potential cease-fire in a call with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has offered to bring the Russian and Ukrainian leaders together in Turkey.

Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told the newspaper Hurriyet in an interview published Saturday that Putin’s demands included that Ukraine pledge its neutrality and not seek to join the NATO alliance of 30 nations that includes the United States; disarmament; and “denazification” — a reflection of Putin’s baseless claim that Ukraine is led by a fascist government. Putin also reportedly wants the removal of obstacles to the widespread use of the Russian language in Ukraine.

Putin also wants Ukraine to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the autonomy of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Kalin said Putin may be willing to meet with Zelensky to discuss those topics after they have reached an agreement on the first four.

Zelensky has not made clear what concessions he would be willing to make. In a message on Telegram, he said that he talked with Erdogan, calling him “a friend of Ukraine,” and said that they had discussed “ways to intensify peaceful dialogue.”

Anastacia Galouchka in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine; Andrew Jeong in Seoul; Ellen Francis, Annabelle Chapman and Adela Suliman in London; and Jason Aldag, Marisa Iati, Miriam Berg, Kim Bellware, Dan Lamothe and Maite Fernández Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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