LVIV, UKRAINE — Air raid sirens blared over Ukraine’s capital on Wednesday as officials said they were bolstering defences in key cities threatened by Russian forces.
Thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in almost two weeks of fighting since President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded. While Russian troops have seen their advance slowed by fiercer than expected Ukrainian resistance, they have laid siege to several cities, trapping civilians inside them with little or no food, water or medicine.
Repeated efforts to establish safe evacuation routes out of several urban areas have failed, though a few thousand people managed to flee the northeastern city of Sumy via a safe corridor on Tuesday. Residents of the encircled Azov Sea port of Mariupol were not so lucky: Some of the worst desperation of the war is unfolding there, but an attempt to evacuate civilians and deliver badly needed supplies failed, with Ukrainian officials saying Russian forces had fired on the convoy before it reached the city.
Ukrainian authorities announced Russia has agreed to a new daylong cease-fire along several evacuation routes for civilians fleeing besieged or occupied cities Wednesday, though it is unclear whether Russian forces will respect it.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces said in a statement that it was building up defences in cities in the north, south and east, and that forces around Kyiv, the capital, were resisting the Russian offensive with unspecified strikes and “holding the line.”
In the northern city of Chernihiv, Russian forces are placing military equipment among residential buildings and on farms, the Ukrainian general staff said. And in the south, it said Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding center of a half-million people.
It did not provide any details of new fighting.
Talks aimed at ending the fighting have so far yielded little, but the foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine are expected to meet in Turkey on Thursday, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
The meeting was to take place on the sidelines of a summit hosted by Turkey, a NATO member nation, but no further details were announced.
In Kyiv, back-to-back air alerts Wednesday morning urged residents to get to bomb shelters as quickly as possible over fears of incoming Russian missiles. An all-clear was given for each alert soon afterward.
Such alerts are intermittent, keeping people on edge. Kyiv has been relatively quiet in recent days, though Russian artillery has pounded the outskirts.
Kyiv regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians was growing in the capital, with the situation particularly critical in the city’s suburbs.
“Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, frustrating the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing small communities,” he said.
More than 2 million people have now fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations.
As Moscow’s forces have laid siege to Ukrainian cities, the fighting has thwarted attempts to create corridors to safely evacuate civilians.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Wednesday that Russian authorities confirmed a new cease-fire along evacuation corridors out of Sumy, Mariupol, Enerhodar in the south, Volnovakha in the southeast, Izyum in the east, and several towns in the Kyiv region.
All the corridors lead to sites elsewhere in Ukraine that are currently held by the Ukrainian government; previous Russian proposals to establish evacuation routes into Russia or ally Belarus were widely criticized.
The route out of Sumy, on the Russian border, is the only one that has been used successfully so far, allowing for the evacuation of 5,000 people, including 1,700 foreign students, on Tuesday southwest to the city of Poltava.
Ukrainian officials released videos Wednesday showing trucks and buses with red cross symbols heading to besieged cities
Russia, which calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” has focused official statements about the war almost exclusively on fighting and evacuations in the separatist regions, where Russian-backed forces have been fighting Ukraine’s military since 2014.
On Wednesday, Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces had thwarted a large-scale attack plot in the east, citing in a televised statement what he claimed was an intercepted Ukrainian National Guard document.
He did not address Russia’s shelling, airstrikes and attacks on Ukrainian civilians or cities, Russian military casualties or any other aspect of its bogged-down campaign.
In the south, Russian troops have advanced deep along Ukraine’s coastline in an effort that could establish a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The city of Mariupol has been surrounded by Russian soldiers for days and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the encircled city of 430,000.
Corpses lie in the streets of the city, which sits on the Asov Sea. Hungry people break into stores in search of food and melt snow for water. Thousands huddle in basements, trembling at the sound of Russian shells pounding their city.
“Why shouldn’t I cry?” Goma Janna demanded as she wept by the light of an oil lamp below ground, surrounded by women and children. “I want my home, I want my job. I’m so sad about people and about the city, the children.”
Mariupol, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, is in a “catastrophic situation.”
Natalia Mudrenko, the highest-ranking woman at Ukraine’s UN Mission, told the Security Council that the people of Mariupol have “been effectively taken hostage,” by the siege. Her voice shook with emotion as she described how a 6-year-old died shortly after her mother was killed by Russian shelling. “She was alone in the last moments of her life,” she said.
Authorities in Mariupol planned to start digging mass graves for all the dead. The shelling has shattered buildings, and the city has no water, heat, working sewage systems or phone service.
With the electricity out, many people are relying on their car radios for information, picking up news from stations broadcast from areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists.
Ludmila Amelkina, who was walking along an alley strewn with rubble and walls pocked by gunfire, said the destruction had been devastating.
“We don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have medicine. We’ve got nothing,” she said, looking skyward.