Ukraine calls for talks in teetering Mariupol as Moscow holds ICBM test

US leads G20 boycott of Russian finance officials

By: AFP
Published: 09:17 AM, 21 Apr, 2022
Ukraine calls for talks in teetering Mariupol as Moscow holds ICBM test
Caption: This grab made from a handout video footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry shows the launching of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile at Plesetsk testing field.–AFP
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Ukraine called Wednesday for urgent negotiations with Russia in Mariupol, which appeared close to falling after weeks of siege, as Vladimir Putin flexed his military muscle with the test launch of a new, nuclear capable ICBM.

Washington downplayed the test of the intercontinental ballistic missile and said it had been notified in advance, but Putin said it would make the Kremlin's enemies "think twice", raising tensions nearly two months after he invaded Ukraine and ignited a global crisis.

Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov, has been under a horrific siege almost since the invasion began. On Wednesday, Moscow issued another call for the devastated city's defenders to surrender.

But Kyiv proposed a "special round" of talks with Moscow, without any conditions, in Mariupol itself. 

"One on one. Two on two. To save our guys, Azov, military, civilians, children, the living & the wounded. Everyone. Because they are ours," wrote top Ukraine negotiator and presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak on Twitter.

He tweeted after a Ukrainian commander in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol issued a desperate plea for help, saying his marines were "maybe facing our last days, if not hours".

"The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one," said Serhiy Volyna from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.

"We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the procedure of extraction and take us to the territory of a third-party state."

An adviser to the city's mayor described a "horrible situation" in the encircled steel plant and reported that up to 2,000 people -- mostly women and children -- are without supplies of drinking water, food and fresh air.

"Powerful bombs have been dropped several times on Azovstal, we have been bombed from boats... we are under siege. The front is 360 degrees," said Svyatoslav Palamar, a commander in the nationalist Azov battalion defending the city, in a post on Telegram. 

"The situation is critical, we call on international leaders to help the children," he added.

Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine's unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on February 24.

Capturing it would allow Russia to have a land bridge between the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and the two Moscow-backed separatist statelets in Ukraine's east. 

The offer of talks came after Kyiv said it had agreed with Russian forces to open a safe route for civilians to flee the devastated city -- but that the had attempt failed.

- Biden 'amazed' by resistance -

As fighting raged in Ukraine's east and south, European Council leader Charles Michel visited Kyiv and vowed the EU would do "everything possible" to help Ukraine win the war.

"You are not alone. We are with you," Michel said during a press conference alongside Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky said his country still did not have enough weapons to resist the invasion, despite billions in military aid from Western allies -- though, in a video message he added his partners "understand our needs better."

Ahead of Michel's arrival, the Pentagon said Ukraine had received fighter planes to bolster its air force -- but later it corrected that statement, saying only aircraft parts had been delivered.

Washington has repeatedly vowed to do everything it can to help Kyiv, without igniting a direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.

On Wednesday US President Joe Biden said he has been "amazed" by Ukrainian resistance. 

"They're tougher and more proud than I thought," he said, adding that Western "weapons and ammunition are flowing in daily."

He said NATO remains "united, focused and energized," adding: "I don't think Putin counted on it."

- 'Nothing good' -

Russia said Wednesday its forces had launched 73 air strikes across Ukraine, hitting dozens of locations where Ukrainian troops were concentrated.

In eastern Ukraine's Kramatorsk, a large city in the Donetsk region, residents were bracing for the worst.

"It's going to be a mess," said Alexander, 53. "There's nothing good to expect."

Further from the frontlines, residents were still reeling weeks after Russian forces withdrew from the area near Kyiv. 

At a morgue in Bucha, families carefully searched body bags and examined cadavers looking for missing loved ones.

In the car park body bags arrived in carts or were piled up in trailers, vans and non-refrigerated trucks.

Four hundred bodies have been discovered there since the Russians withdrew on March 31, local police chief Vitaly Lobas told AFP. Around a quarter of them are still unidentified.

"The majority died violent deaths," Lobas said.

Ukrainian authorities have said that over 1,200 bodies have been found in the Kyiv region so far.

Putin has said he launched the so-called military operation in Ukraine to save Russian speakers there from a "genocide" carried out by a "neo-Nazi" regime.

But his forces have faced allegations of war crimes -- most recently from the EU's Michel, who toured the devastated town of Borodianka Wednesday. 

"History will not forget the war crimes that have been committed here," Michel wrote on Twitter. 

US leads G20 boycott of Russian finance officials

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen led a multinational group of finance chiefs on a walkout Wednesday as Russian officials spoke during a meeting of the G20, in the latest protest by Western nations over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's attack on its neighbor loomed over the meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors from the world's most developed countries, the first since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion in late February.

British and Canadian officials also took part in the boycott, officials confirmed, underscoring the boiling tensions at the gathering convened to address global challenges like rising debt and a possible food crisis.

"Multiple finance ministers and central bank governors including Ukraine Finance Minister (Sergiy Marchenko) and Secretary Yellen walked out when Russia started talking at the G20 meeting," a source familiar with the event told AFP. 

"Some finance ministers and central bank governors who were virtual turned their cameras off when Russia spoke."

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted a photograph of the officials who left the meeting, saying, "The world's democracies will not stand idly by in the face of continued Russian aggression and war crimes."

During the gathering, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called on Russian delegates to refrain from attending the sessions, saying "war is not compatible with international cooperation."

The Group of 20, chaired by Indonesia this year, includes major economies like the United States, China, India, Brazil, Japan and several countries in Europe, including Russia. 

- 'Very important forum' -

Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who led the meeting said, the walkout was done "without disrupting... our discussion" on the substance of the agenda.

"All members see the G20 as a very important forum," she told reporters. "So I'm confident that this will not erode the cooperation as well as the role of the G20."

Prior to the meeting, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said the country, which chairs the G7 group of liberal democracies, would try to find common ground, but ruled out providing "a stage for Russia to spread propaganda and lies." He did not join the walkout.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov attended the meeting virtually, and "called on the partners to avoid politicizing the dialogue and stressed that the G20 has always been and remains primarily an economic format," his ministry said in a statement.

The finance officials are gathering on the sidelines of the World Bank and IMF's spring meetings in Washington. 

Despite the friction, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said global cooperation "must and will continue," pointing to multiple issues that "no country can solve on its own."

Georgieva, who heads an institution with 189 members, told reporters, "I can vouch for the fact that it is more difficult when there are tensions, but it is not impossible."

- Debt woes -

The meetings in Washington are focused on how to help the global economy recover from the new shock caused by Russia's invasion, which has driven prices for food and fuel higher and caused the IMF to lower its global growth outlook to 3.6 percent for this year.

Western nations have retaliated for the bloody incursion with sanctions meant to harm Russia's economy and turn it into a pariah state.

US President Joe Biden has proposed ejecting Russia from the G20.

But Mark Sobel, a former Treasury official who is now US chairman of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, told AFP there was no obvious mechanism for booting Moscow, which is to varying degrees supported by China and India.

"I think that it really does raise a fundamental question about how are you going to manage global governance," he said of the tensions.

The divide also bodes ill for the G20 Common Framework created during the pandemic to help heavily indebted countries find a path to restructure their obligations, which Sobel said is "flailing" as China and private-sector creditors drag their feet on participating.

Latest developments

Here are the latest developments in the war in Ukraine:

- Mariupol could fall in 'hours' -

A commander of forces holding out at a steelworks in the besieged port city of Mariupol issues a desperate plea for help, saying his marines are "maybe facing our last days, if not hours".

"The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one," says Serhiy Volyna from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.

- Evacuation attempt fails -

Efforts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol have failed again because of Russian shelling, officials in Kyiv say.

"Unfortunately, the humanitarian corridor out of Mariupol today did not work as planned," Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk says.

- UN requests Russia, Ukraine meetings -

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked to meet with the presidents of Russia and Ukraine in their respective capitals, a UN spokesman says.

With the organisation largely sidelined so far in the conflict, Guterres made the request in letters sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, says spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

- Only aircraft parts -

The US Defense Department has retracted its claim Ukraine has been supplied with more aircraft, saying only parts had been delivered.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby says while fixed-wing aircraft have been offered by an unidentified country to bolster Kyiv's defences, "they have not received whole aircraft from another nation".

- German headache -

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is under pressure for refusing to send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

"We believe that the Bundeswehr (Germany army) would be capable of supplying us with the weapons we need right now," Ukraine's ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, tells broadcaster ZDF. "We do not know why this is not happening."

General Markus Laubenthal argues Berlin is not in a position to send the weapons Ukraine wants as this would "considerably weaken (Germany's own) defence capability".

- More than five million have fled: UN -

More than five million Ukrainians have now fled their country following the Russian invasion, the United Nations says.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says 5,034,439 Ukrainians have left since Russia invaded on February 24.

Over a million Ukrainians have in contrast returned to their country since the Russian invasion began, says a spokesman for Kyiv's border force. 

- Missile threat -

President Vladimir Putin says Russia has successfully tested its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, adding the next-generation weapon capable of carrying nuclear charges will make Kremlin's enemies "think twice".

- EU chief in Kyiv -

On a visit to Ukraine, EU chief Charles Michel says the union will do "everything possible" to help Ukraine win the war and that Kyiv's application for membership of the bloc is a "priority".

He also insists that war crimes allegedly committed by Russian forces be prosecuted.

- Donbas offensive -

Ukraine's defence ministry says its troops have beaten back a Russian attack in the city of Izium, a gateway to the eastern Donbas region which is the target of a major Russian offensive.

Kyiv also claimed enemy losses in a Ukrainian counter-attack near the town of Marinka in the southern part of the Donbas, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014.

- Finnish MPs debate joining NATO -

Finland's parliament opens a debate on whether to seek NATO membership.

Russia has warned of a nuclear build-up in the Baltic should Finland and neighbouring Sweden, which is also considering joining NATO following the invasion, join the Western alliance.

- Wimbledon ban -

Wimbledon bans Russian and Belarusian players from this year's Grand Slam tournament over Moscow's invasion.

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.