Vladimir Putin is determined to continue bombing Ukraine “until the end” despite a plea last night from Volodymyr Zelensky for face to face talks to halt the military assault.
In a series of phone and video calls on Thursday, the Russian president accused Kyiv of using human shields and behaving “like Nazis”, hailed his fallen soldiers as heroes and claimed the invasion was going “according to plan”.
He told members of his Kremlin security council that Russia has only bombed military facilities and haven’t targeted residential areas – despite another day of carnage in which the bodies of Ukrainian civilians were recovered from destroyed homes.
Putin reaffirmed his claim that the Russian military was fighting “neo-Nazis”, adding that some Ukrainians were also “fooled by nationalist propaganda”.
In a call with French president Emmanuel Macron, Putin was so undaunted by international condemnation that an Elysee official bleakly concluded: “We expect that the worst is yet to come.”
The official said Putin initiated the 1 and half hour call but insisted there would be no let up in the invasion, blamed the west for the conflict and also “denied having bombarded Kyiv”.
As the UN announced the number of refugees fleeing Ukraine had soared past one million, Zelensky sent a message to Putin asking for in-person talks – and even joked about the Russian leader’s much-ridiculed long tables.
“Leave our land,” he said. “If you don’t want to leave now, sit down with me at the negotiating table. But not from 30 meters away. I don’t bite. What are you afraid of?
Ukrainians faced another grim day with dwindling supplies. In Kyiv, snow gave way to a cold, gray drizzle, as long lines formed outside the few pharmacies and bakeries that remain open.
A Russian convoy, which earlier in the week had seemed poised to launch an assault on the capital, has been stalled by fuel and food shortages some 16 miles north of the capital, a US official said.
New shelling was reported in the northern city of Chernihiv, where emergency officials said at least 22 civilians had been killed in a Russian bombardment of a residential area.
Families with children fled via muddy and snowy roads in the eastern region of Donetsk, while military strikes on the village of Yakovlivka near the eastern city of Kharkiv destroyed 30 homes, leaving three dead and seven wounded.
Russian forces battled for control of the southern city of Enerhodar, home to the biggest nuclear plant in Europe.
Meanwhile another round of delegate talks in Belarus yielded only a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors inside Ukraine to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid.
Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Azov Sea, plunging it into darkness, isolation and fear. Electricity and phone service were largely down, and homes and shops faced food and water shortages.
Cutting Ukraine’s access to the coastline would deal a crippling blow to its economy and allow Russia to build a land corridor stretching from its border, across Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014, and all the way west to Romania.
Earlier, the Russians announced the capture of the Black Sea port of Kherson, making it the first major city to fall since the invasion began a week ago.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.