AFP, March 9, 2022 — The United States led a Western assault on Moscow’s economic lifeline Tuesday, banning imports of Russian oil as civilians fled besieged Ukrainian cities in a desperate evacuation push blighted by Russian shelling.
President Joe Biden heralded the US embargo as a hit on “the main artery of Russia’s economy” targeting President Vladimir Putin’s most crucial source of revenue — and vowed Ukraine would “never be a victory” for Putin.
As the invasion approached its third week, Britain said it would phase out Russian oil by year’s end while oil giants BP and Shell announced an immediate halt to Russian oil and gas purchases and the European Union planned to slash gas imports by two-thirds.
The latest Western strike at Russia’s economy came as the United Nations said more than two million civilians have flooded across Ukraine’s borders to escape towns devastated by shelling and air strikes, in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.
After days of heavy fighting in the northern city of Sumy, the first convoy of 22 buses evacuating families along a humanitarian corridor arrived in central Ukraine under a deal with Moscow to hold fire in cities targeted by its forces, with a second convoy on the way.
Kyiv said 21 people, including two children, had been killed in air strikes in Sumy on Monday.
Attempted evacuations from the blockaded port town of Mariupol — where aid workers said tens of thousands were living in “apocalyptic” conditions — have failed on several occasions however, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of attacking fleeing civilians in an act of “genocide”.
Authorities in the southern hub, which has had no water, power or heating since Friday, said a six-year-old girl identified only as Tanya died from dehydration under the rubble of her destroyed home.
“In the last minutes of her life she was alone, exhausted, frightened and terribly thirsty,” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said on the city’s Telegram channel.
In a defiant speech to British lawmakers, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked Winston Churchill’s resistance against Nazi Germany as he vowed to “fight to the end.”
“We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets,” he told the packed chamber, which gave him a standing ovation.
But he complained he was not receiving desperately needed air support.
Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have balked at the idea of a no-fly zone to defend Ukraine’s skies, with Putin warning it would be considered as “participation in the conflict” with nuclear-armed Russia.
Poland said Tuesday it was “ready” to hand its MiG-29 fighter jets to the United States, under a scheme that would see the planes sent to Ukraine via a US air base.
But the United States rejected the Polish offer as not “tenable,” saying it raised “serious concerns” for the entire NATO alliance.
The Pentagon estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. Russia said on March 2 that 498 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine.
Russian troops are slowly encroaching on Kyiv despite intense efforts by outgunned Ukrainian forces, and moving faster through the east and north of the country.
Despite the sound of nearby shelling in the suburb of Irpin, seen as a critical point for the advance on the capital, civilians fled in icy wind and thick snowfall, AFP reporters witnessed.
People waited in a long line to cross over the Irpin river on makeshift walkways of planks and mangled metal, after the Ukrainians blew up the bridge leading into the capital to hamper any Russian advance.
“I didn’t want to leave, but there’s nobody left in the homes around us, no water, no gas and no electricity,” Larissa Prokopets, 43, told AFP.
‘Someone could kill him’
Many of Kyiv’s men have joined the military, leaving thousands of women to raise young children alone, some spending their nights sheltering from bombing in the concrete tunnels of the underground metro system.
According to the UN Population Fund, 81 babies were born in Kyiv’s bunkers and makeshift bomb shelters at the weekend, five of them in metro stations.
Taria Blazhevych, a 27-year-old mother of two boys aged under six, told AFP she hoped her children had no real grasp of the horror of their situation.
“I tell them that all will be good, that their father will come back for them, but they understand that someone could kill him or shoot him,” she said.
On Tuesday evening to the northwest of Kyiv, Ukrainian emergency services said an airstrike in the town of Malyn destroyed seven houses and killed five people including two babies born last year.
Russia’s assault on its ex-Soviet neighbour and the plight of civilians caught up in the bloodshed has fueled global outrage.
At least 474 civilians have been killed so far, according to the United Nations, although it believes the real figures to be “considerably higher”.
The onslaught has created a huge refugee crisis for European countries that have taken in Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, particularly Poland.
“It doesn’t stop,” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said as he announced that two million people had fled.
As Western nations look to tighten the economic screws on Moscow, faced with the snowballing humanitarian crisis, Russia has warned that oil sanctions would have “catastrophic consequences”.
But the United States led the push — partly because Russia accounts for less than 10 percent of US oil and petroleum imports, making the impact on the world’s largest economy easier to bear. By Dmitry Zaks and Dave Clark with Frankie Taggart in Washington