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'Propaganda corridors': Ukraine rejects Russian offer to let civilians flee to Russia

“Our people won’t go to Belarus and to Russia,” Ukraine's vice prime minister said Monday, branding Moscow's unilateral announcement of humanitarian corridors “unacceptable.”
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Ukraine on Monday dismissed Russia’s promise to allow its citizens to travel safely on designated routes to Russia or its close ally Belarus. A Ukrainian official called it propaganda and said it was not driven by humanitarian concerns.

Russia announced a cease-fire and said it was offering routes for safe passage out of the capital, Kyiv, the southern port city of Mariupol and hard-hit areas of Kharkiv and Sumy in the northeast. But it set out clearly defined paths for anyone seeking to escape, which Ukraine said were unacceptable and described as being meant to manipulate world leaders.

The news came after another night of Russian bombardment, days of aborted efforts to evacuate besieged civilians and nearly two weeks of an invasion that has brought death and destruction to areas across Ukraine but that has seen slow progress in the Russian military offensive.

Latest developments on Ukraine:

  • Ukraine rejected Moscow's offer of humanitarian corridors out of key cities that lead to Russia and Belarus.
  • Russian bombs fell overnight Tuesday in cities in eastern and central Ukraine, killing an untold number of people and destroying a power plant, Ukrainian officials said.
  • More than 1.7 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, the U.N. refugee agency said.
  • Oil prices jumped as the Biden administration considered a ban on Russian imports.
  • Russia has fired more than 625 missiles and committed nearly all of the troops who had been amassed around Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned of a new wave of Russian attacks and criticized world leaders for not doing enough to protect his country.

He has called for a no-fly zone to be established, a move that Kyiv's allies in the West have rejected over fears that it could send the conflict — already one of Europe's most intense since World War II — spiraling into a broader war between Moscow and NATO.

The invasion, now in its 12th day, has been condemned across the world, led to crippling sanctions on Russia and left Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly isolated on the world stage.

But Putin has shown no sign of pulling back in the face of fierce resistance. He has cracked down on dissent at home while warning the West against interference as he has escalated his attack on his democratic neighbor.

Russia has fired more than 625 missiles during the conflict and committed nearly all of the troops who had been amassed around Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said.

While Russia and Ukraine said they made little progress in a third round of talks Monday afternoon, Russia’s top negotiator said the corridors are expected to start functioning Tuesday.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said without elaboration Monday that “there were some small positive shifts regarding logistics of humanitarian corridors” to allow civilians to flee some besieged Ukrainian cities. He said consultations will continue on ways to negotiate an end to hostilities.

Russia’s top negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said “our expectations from the talks have failed, but we hope that we would be able to make a more significant step forward next time,” Medinsky said. “The talks will continue.”

Evacuation hopes dashed

Russia's Defense Ministry unilaterally announced a cease-fire and the opening of humanitarian corridors in a statement early Monday. It said that the move came at the request of French President Emmanuel Macron and that its forces would observe the process with drones to prevent Ukrainian attempts "to deceive Russia."

Macron criticized the proposal as a case of "cynicism."

“I don’t know many Ukrainians who want to seek refuge in Russia. That’s hypocrisy,” he said in an interview with the French news broadcaster LCI.

Three of the six proposed routes led to either Russia or Belarus, from where Russian forces have launched parts of their campaign.

Rejecting the offer to have civilians escape straight into the territory of countries behind the assault on their homes, Ukraine's vice prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said her country had sent a counterproposal that would allow residents of Kyiv and Kharkiv to flee to western Ukraine.

"Our people won't go to Belarus and to Russia," she said at a news briefing in the heavily fortified capital, branding the proposal “unacceptable” and saying Russia was seeking to manipulate Macron's sincere desire to help.

Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak dismissed the proposals as “propaganda.”

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Podolyak told NBC News, accusing Russian forces of killing civilians on Ukrainian streets “as they tried to leave the besieged or captured cities.”

“Russia is organizing propaganda corridors, not humanitarian ones,” he said.

Attempts to evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol on Saturday and Sunday were halted after Ukraine said Russian forces violated temporary cease-fires with a barrage of shelling.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 200,000 people had been preparing to leave the city, and it blamed both Ukrainian and Russian forces for failing to agree on the details of the safe passage.

At one point Sunday, Red Cross workers halted an evacuation attempt when they realized the road indicated for them to use had been mined, Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the organization, told the BBC.

'No safe place'

More than 1.735 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries since the conflict began, the United Nations’ refugee agency said Monday, up from 1.53 million Sunday. Those who have remained have sheltered in basements and metro stations or packed trains heading west to areas largely free of the fighting.

The U.N. said Monday that it recorded 406 civilian deaths from Feb. 24 to Sunday, including the deaths of 27 children. In addition, the U.N. recorded that 801 civilians were wounded.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said it believes the total number of people killed since the conflict started is "considerably higher," however, especially in government-controlled territory.

Cities that have come under heavy Russian assault, including encircled Mariupol, have sounded the alarm about an impending humanitarian catastrophe. Russian shelling destroyed critical infrastructure and left residents without water, heat or electricity and with dwindling food supplies.

"There is no safe place in the city. There are no neighborhoods where rockets don’t hit," said Oleksandr Sosnovskyi, who fled Mariupol last week. "People go to basements and sit there, hungry and cold.”

He said that since he left, he has not been able to reach his mother and other relatives who remained in the city. "I have no idea if they are alive or not,” said Sosnovskyi, 39.

Irpin, just outside Kyiv, has come under heavy fire as Russian forces seek new momentum in their advance on the capital.

Around 2,000 people safely left the town Monday, according to the police, and they streamed east toward the capital, with Russian forces blocking other routes of escape. Helped by family members and the military, those leaving included the most vulnerable in wheelchairs and on crutches.

In a particularly deadly incident Sunday in Irpin, two children and two adults were killed by a Russian strike as they were seeking to flee, the city's mayor said.

NBC News has not verified the numbers of people who have been killed. Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians.

Image: A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces helps to evacuate a child from the town of Irpin, on the only escape route used by locals after days of heavy shelling, while Russian troops advance towards the capital, in Irpin, near Kyiv
Ukrainian servicemen help evacuate civilians from the town of Irpin on Monday on the only escape route used by residents after days of heavy shelling.Carlos Barria / Reuters

Zelenskyy urges West to do more

Ukraine’s leaders have struck a more emphatic tone in recent days about what they view as Western inaction in the face of a Russian advance that has increasingly hit populated areas.

Zelenskyy warned in a video message posted Sunday on Telegram of a new Russian assault on major cities and lashed out at the West for its silence.

"It is decided on our land whether any other European nation will become the next victim of the same aggression," he said in a new video early Monday. "The future of the continent depends on us, on our resistance."

He called for a boycott of oil from Russia, one of the world's leading exporters, and renewed his call for the West to implement a no-fly zone above Ukraine.

Putin has warned that any such move would be viewed as “participation” in the conflict and likened Western sanctions to a declaration of war.

The U.S. and its allies have focused on supplying Kyiv with weapons and aid in addition to imposing crippling economic sanctions on Moscow.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over the weekend ordered 500 U.S. military personnel to deploy to Europe to augment existing forces already there, a senior U.S. defense official said.

The deployment is temporary, and the U.S. still has no plans to send troops into Ukraine, the official said. The personnel sent to Europe will be assigned to refueling, maintenance and logistics support.

Washington said over the weekend that it was considering the oil import ban, a move that would be likely to send shock waves through world markets. Oil prices surged overnight before they came down slightly, while European markets opened lower Monday.

President Joe Biden spoke Monday morning with the leaders of France, Germany and the U.K. They agreed to "continue raising the costs on Russia for its unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine” and affirmed plans for "providing security, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine," the White House said.

Moscow says it was provoked by the West to invade Ukraine and that it launched the conflict to disarm Kyiv and capture leaders it baselessly calls neo-Nazis. Putin's aim appeared to be to replace Zelenskyy's Western-leaning government with a regime that is friendlier to the Kremlin to restore Russia's influence three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin said Monday it was ready to halt its offensive "in a moment" if Ukraine met a list of conditions. They include changing its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledging annexed Crimea as Russian territory and recognizing the separatist republics in Ukraine's east as independent territories, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Reuters.

With little optimism for the latest round of negotiations set to take place in Belarus, Turkey said Ukraine’s and Russia’s foreign ministers agreed to meet Thursday for talks in Antalya, Turkey. It would be the first meeting between the warring countries' two top diplomats since the conflict began.

As his military campaign struggles against strong Ukrainian resistance, Putin has increasingly cracked down on dissent at home, with security services quashing any protests against the invasion and blocking or driving out independent media.

Russia’s isolation has grown in recent days. TikTok and Netflix are among the latest Western companies to have said they would halt operations in the country. The Big Four global accountancy firms — KPMG, PwC, EY and Deloitte — also said they will exit Russia. 

Over the weekend, Visa and Mastercard announced that they would suspend operations in Russia.

Russian advance stalled

Since Russia launched its offensive on Feb. 24, the progress of Putin’s military has been slowed by strategic and logistical issues, as well as determined Ukrainian defense on the ground. Russia has moved increasingly to strike cities and towns from the air, although its forces have made some progress in the country's south.

The Ukrainian military's commander-in-chief warned Monday afternoon local time that Russian forces were redoubling their effort in the south while also trying to encircle Kyiv.

In Mykolaiv, near Ukraine's southern Black Sea coast, Russian strikes targeted residential areas and industrial facilities Monday, Ukraine's interior ministry said. Ukrainian forces repulsed a Russian attack on the airport, the region’s head said in a message on Telegram.

The U.S. has assessed that about 95 percent of the Russian forces who had amassed around Ukraine before the invasion are now inside the country, an official said. A mileslong convoy outside the capital has stalled, the official added.

Russia is also likely to be targeting Ukrainian communications facilities to block people from getting access to news and information, Britain’s Defense Ministry said in an intelligence update Monday.

It noted reports that Russia struck a TV tower in Kharkiv on Sunday, “suspending broadcasting output,” with the apparent incident following a similar strike on a TV tower in Kyiv last week.

Meanwhile, after Russian forces took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Twitter that he was working on an "initiative to reach an agreement to ensure on safety and security" to avoid a nuclear accident.

The attack on the Zaporizhzhia plant, in southeast Ukraine, sparked a fire and fears of a nuclear meltdown.