Humanitarian crisis in Ukraine escalating as peace talks fail to progress

US vice-president Kamala Harris backs calls for war crimes investigation over invasion

The International Red Cross has warned that an estimated 18 million people in or from Ukraine will need humanitarian assistance as a result of the war.

It also warned that those with pre-existing medical condition will need particular help from outside and said conditions in Mariupol are critical due to the lack of electricity, fresh water or fuel for heating.

"They urgently need food, water and shelter, but also emergency medical care . . . to avert an even greater humanitarian catastrophe," said Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen, IFRC [International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies] regional director for Europe.

Ukraine said on Thursday that Moscow had refused to guarantee humanitarian access to rescue hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped under bombardment, as opposing sides yielded nothing at the highest-level talks since the Russian invasion began. In contrast, according to news agency Interfax, the Russian defence ministry said proposed humanitarian corridors from Ukraine to Russia will be opened without approval from Kyiv.

South Africa has been “approached to play a mediation role” in the conflict, said President Cyril Ramaphosa said after a telephone conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Mr Ramaphosa said he had spoken to Mr Putin to “gain an understanding of the situation that was unfolding”.

The war has entered a third week with none of its stated objectives reached.

Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Turkey, but said he had secured no promise from him to halt firing so aid could reach civilians, including Kyiv's main humanitarian priority – evacuating hundreds of thousands trapped in the port of Mariupol.

“I made a simple proposal to Minister Lavrov: I can call my Ukrainian ministers, authorities, president now and give you 100 per cent assurances on security guarantees for humanitarian corridors,” he said. “I asked him, ‘can you do the same?’ And he did not respond.”

Holding his own simultaneous news conference in a separate room, Mr Lavrov showed no sign of making any concessions, repeating Russian demands that Ukraine be disarmed and accept neutral status.

He said Kyiv appeared to want meetings for the sake of meetings and that a ceasefire was not meant to be on the agenda at the Turkey talks.

Russia calls its actions a special military operation to disarm its neighbour and dislodge leaders it calls neo-Nazis. Kyiv and its western allies say this is a baseless pretext to invade a country of 44 million people.

400,000 people trapped

Aid agencies say humanitarian aid is most urgently needed in Mariupol, where 400,000 people have been trapped for more than a week with no food, water or power.

The city council said the port had come under fresh air strikes on Thursday morning, a day after Moscow bombed what Ukraine called a functioning maternity hospital there. But the Russian defence ministry denied responsibility for the strike and claimed the explosions that hit the building were staged to smear Russia. Defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov denied that the Russian military struck the hospital. He claimed the two explosions that ravaged the building were caused by devices planted nearby in what he described as a “staged provocation to incite anti-Russian agitation in the West”.

Mr Lavrov said the building was no longer used as a hospital and had been occupied by Ukrainian forces.

"What kind of country is this, the Russian Federation, which is afraid of hospitals, is afraid of maternity hospitals, and destroys them?" said Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday.

Ukraine said a convoy trying to reach the city had again been turned back by Russian fire on Thursday, and accused Moscow of deliberately blocking aid. Daily attempts at a local humanitarian ceasefire have failed since Saturday.

US vice-president Kamala Harris on Thursday embraced calls for an international war crimes investigation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and the bombing of civilians.

Speaking alongside Polish president Andrzej Duda in Warsaw, where she is demonstrating US support for Nato’s eastern flank allies, Ms Harris expressed outrage over bombing of the maternity hospital and other attacks on civilians.

However, she stopped short of directly accusing Russia of having committed war crimes. “Absolutely there should be an investigation and we should all be watching,” she said.

Mr Duda said “it is obvious to us that in Ukraine Russians are committing war crimes”.

Objectives out of reach

Moscow’s stated objectives of crushing Ukraine’s military and removing its leaders have remained out of reach, with western military aid pouring across the Polish and Romanian borders.

Russian forces have advanced in the south but have yet to capture a single city in the north or east. Western countries have said they believe a planned lightning strike on Kyiv failed in the early days of the war, and Moscow has instead turned to tactics that involve far more destructive assaults.

Western-led sanctions – designed to cut the Russian economy and government from international financial markets – have bitten hard. The rouble has plunged and ordinary Russians are hoarding cash.

Britain added several Russian businessmen to its blacklist on Thursday, including Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club. The sanctions would block an attempt to sell the club, but a special licence would enable it to keep playing.

Children’s hospital bombed

Ukrainian officials said Russian aircraft bombed the children’s hospital on Wednesday, injuring pregnant women and burying patients in rubble despite a ceasefire deal to allow people to flee Mariupol. The regional governor said 17 people were wounded. It was reported that three people died as a result, including a child.

The attack underscored US warnings that the biggest assault on a European state since 1945 could become increasingly attritional after Russia's early setbacks. The White House condemned the bombing as a "barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians".

The UN human rights body said it was trying to verify the number of casualties. The incident “adds to our deep concerns about indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas”, it added.

Russia has repeatedly pledged since Saturday to halt firing so at least some trapped civilians could escape Mariupol. Both sides have blamed the other for the failure of the evacuations.

Ukraine’s gas transit company said Russian forces were occupying gas pumping stations threatening shipments to Europe. So far gas is still flowing normally.

– Reuters/Bloomberg