Ukraine braced for a “relentless defence” of Kiev on Sunday as the capital faced possible encirclement by Russian forces who also launched an airstrike on a military base outside the city of Lviv , near the Polish border.
In a video address posted on social media late Saturday evening, President Volodymyr Zelensky said emphatically that the Russians will not take Ukraine.
“The Russian invaders cannot conquer us. They have no such strength. They have no such spirit. “, he said.
Local officials said Russian forces fired eight missiles at a military training ground about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Lviv, which is a hub for joint exercises between Ukrainian soldiers and NATO allies.
The head of the Lviv regional administration, Maxim Kozitsky, said there was no information about the casualties yet.
A humanitarian aid convoy bound for the southern port city of Mariupol was blocked at a Russian checkpoint but hoped to arrive on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The strategic port is facing what Ukraine describes as a “humanitarian catastrophe” after the death of more than 1,500 civilians.
Attempts to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people have repeatedly failed.
“Mariupol is still surrounded. What they cannot have by war, (the Russians) want to have by hunger and desperation. Since they cannot bring down the Ukrainian army, they target the population “said a French military source.
A senior Russian officer described the situation in harsh language.
“Unfortunately, the humanitarian situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate rapidly, and in some cities it has reached catastrophic proportions,” said the head of the Russian National Defense Control Center, Mikhail Mizintsev.
In his video speech, Zelenskyy called for more help.
“I keep telling our allies and friends abroad that they must continue to do more for our country, for Ukrainians and Ukraine. Because it’s not just for Ukraine, it’s is for all of Europe,” he said.
The Russians have advanced far enough to raise fears of an imminent encirclement of Kiev. Other towns have already fallen or been surrounded since Russia invaded its neighbor on February 24, with civilians targeted in what the United Nations has warned could be war crimes.
The key southern port of Odessa was bracing for an offensive by Russian troops, who were concentrating about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the east in the town of Mykolaiv.
Mykolaiv, which is on the way to the strategic port city, has been under attack for days, and an Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist said a hospital had been fired upon.
Zelenskyy said “about 1,300” Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since February 24, giving his country’s first official toll.
He claimed that Russia had lost around 12,000 soldiers while Moscow, for its part, gave only a death toll of 498, released on March 2.
At least 579 civilians have been killed, according to a tally on Saturday by the UN, which stressed that its figures were likely far lower than the reality.
The UN estimates that nearly 2.6 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, most to Poland, in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
In Kiev, only the southern roads remain open and the city is preparing to mount a “relentless defense”, according to the Ukrainian presidency.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the capital, described by a senior Ukrainian official on Friday as a “besieged city”, was strengthening defenses and stockpiling food and medicine.
The British Ministry of Defense estimated that the Russian forces were on Saturday about 25 kilometers from Kiev and that a column north of the city had dispersed, strengthening the index of an attempt to encircle.
However, the Russians are encountering resistance from the Ukrainian army both east and west of the capital, according to AFP journalists on the spot.
Ukrainian soldiers said they believed the Russians had overestimated their resources, in terms of troops and equipment, and underestimated those of their opponents.
“They have to camp in villages with temperatures close to minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. They run out of supplies and have to loot houses,” said one soldier, Ilya Berezenko, 27.
Intense diplomatic efforts continued, with French and German leaders Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz urging their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a three-way phone call on Saturday to end the deadly blockade, Paris said.
Faced with growing international condemnation, Putin sought to turn the tide, blaming Kiev for what he called a “flagrant violation” of international humanitarian law and accusing the Ukrainian military of executing dissidents and using civilians as hostages.
The French presidency has denounced his accusations, made during talks with Macron and Scholz, as “lies”.
But in a small glimmer of hope, Zelenskyy said on Saturday that Russia – after appearing to stand still for days – had taken a “fundamentally different approach” in the latest talks to end the conflict.
He told reporters he was “happy to get a signal from Russia” after Putin spoke of “some positive changes” in near-daily dialogue.
As Russia expands its bombardment, Zelenskyy’s pleas for help have grown increasingly desperate.
Washington and its EU allies sent funds and military aid to Ukraine and took action against the Russian economy and oligarchs. A cultural and sporting boycott has further isolated Moscow.
On Saturday in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, a Ukrainian soldier who gave his name only as Viktor showed off his British anti-tank missile system and the twisted remains of a Russian vehicle he destroyed.
“I want to say a big thank you to our British comrades who are helping us,” he said.
As international sanctions against Moscow continue to tighten, crippling the Russian economy, Russian space agency Roscosmos warned on Saturday that the International Space Station could crash if Russian spacecraft serving it are hit.
But Washington added several layers of sanctions on Friday, this time ending normal trade relations and announcing a ban on Russian vodka, seafood and diamonds.
And on Saturday, US President Joe Biden authorized up to $200 million in new weapons and other aid to Ukraine. But he ruled out direct action against nuclear-armed Russia, warning it would lead to “World War III”.