President Vladimir Putin has insisted Russia’s military advance in Ukraine is “going to plan” as Kyiv and Moscow agreed to create humanitarian corridors for civilians to escape the Russian invasion.
After the fall of a first major Ukrainian city to Russian forces, Putin on Thursday appeared in no mood to heed a global clamour for hostilities to end as the war entered its second week.
Putin again said Russia was rooting out “neo-Nazis”, adding during the televised opening of a national security council meeting that he “will never give up on [his] conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.”
Reporting from Moscow, Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari said that Putin’s statements aimed to try to “convince the Russian population that things are absolutely going according to plan, reiterating the narrative that they are fighting a good fight in Ukraine, and that they are doing it for the security of their own country.”
‘Worst to come’
Putin earlier told French President Emmanuel Macron that Moscow “intends to continue the uncompromising fight against militants of nationalist armed groups”, according to a Kremlin account of their 90-minute call.
Following the call, a senior aide to Macron said the French leader believed “the worst is to come” in Ukraine.
“The expectation of the president is that the worst is to come, given what President Putin told him,” the senior aide old reporters on condition of anonymity.
“There was nothing in what President Putin told us that should reassure us. He showed great determination to continue the operation,” the aide continued.
He added that Putin “wanted to seize control of the whole of Ukraine. He will, in his own words, carry out his operation to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine to the end.”
“You can understand the extent to which these words are shocking and unacceptable and the president told him that it was lies,” the aide said.
Ukraine calls for military assistance
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the West to up its military assistance, after NATO members ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone for fear of igniting a direct war with nuclear-armed Russia.
“If you do not have the power to close the skies, then give me planes!” Zelenskyy told a news conference.
“If we are no more then, God forbid, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia will be next,” he said, adding that direct talks with Putin were “the only way to stop this war”.
The European Union has offered fighter jets already, and a source in Berlin said the German government was planning to deliver another 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine.
The 27-nation EU bloc agreed further to approve temporary protection for all refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine – numbered by the United Nations at more than one million.
Meanwhile, Russia and Ukraine agreed to create humanitarian corridors for civilians fleeing intensifying fighting.
The agreement was the only tangible progress from a second round of talks between Moscow and Kyiv, according to an adviser to Zelenskyy, and it was not immediately clear how they would work.
A Russian negotiator, nationalist lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, confirmed the initiative and said it would be implemented soon.
At the talks in Belarus, negotiators shook hands across a table at the start of the meeting, the Ukrainian delegates in military khaki clothing and the Russians in more formal business suits.
A first round of talks on Monday yielded no breakthrough, and Kyiv says it will not accept any Russian “ultimatums”.
The invasion, now in its eighth day, has turned Russia into a global pariah in the worlds of finance, diplomacy, sports and culture.
The UN has opened a probe into alleged war crimes, as the Russian military bombards cities in Ukraine with shells and missiles, forcing civilians to cower in basements.
‘Just like Leningrad’
Zelenskyy claims thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed since Putin shocked the world by invading Ukraine, purportedly to demilitarise and “de-Nazify” a Western-leaning threat on his borders.
Moscow said Wednesday that it has lost 498 troops, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin praised their sacrifice.
While a long military column appears stalled north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Russian troops seized Kherson, a Black Sea city of 290,000 people, after a three-day siege that left it short of food and medicine.
Russian armoured columns from Crimea – annexed by Moscow in 2014 – pushed deep into the region around Kherson, triggering fighting that left at least 13 civilians dead.
Nine Ukrainian soldiers were also killed, the Kherson regional administration said.
Russian troops are also besieging the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, which is without water or electricity in the depths of winter.
“They are trying to create a blockade here, just like in Leningrad,” Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said, referring to the brutal Nazi siege of Russia’s second city, now re-named Saint Petersburg.
Ukrainian authorities said residential and other areas in the eastern city of Kharkiv had been “pounded all night” by indiscriminate shelling, which UN prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.