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Humanitarian disaster in Ukraine grows as ceasefire efforts falter

With the war in Ukraine showing no signs of letting up, the humanitarian disaster grew after efforts to allow civilians trapped in the conflict faltered.

(CN) — Ukraine descended into further mayhem and chaos on Saturday as efforts to bring relief to the millions of people trapped in the war appeared to break down amid renewed fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. 

Late on Friday, Russian and Ukrainian delegations agreed to a tentative ceasefire and said it was time to open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians stuck in besieged cities a chance to flee the war.  

But hopes for large-scale relief efforts broke down Saturday as Ukraine accused Russia of violating the ceasefire terms and continuing to bomb Ukrainian cities and even fire upon civilians trying to flee through humanitarian corridors.  

Russia denied such claims and accused an increasingly desperate Ukrainian army of seeking to cause panic and spur international condemnation of Russia by shelling evacuation routes out of cities encircled by Russian forces. Claims from both sides could not be independently confirmed.  

The prospects for a ceasefire were further damaged by reports that a member of Ukraine's five-person team of peace negotiators was killed by Ukrainian forces for allegedly being a traitor.  

Russian and Ukrainian news outlets reported that Denis Kireev was killed by the Security Service of Ukraine on “suspicion of treason.” He was among a group of top Ukrainian officials sent by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to sit down with Russian delegates to discuss ways to end the conflict. Images on social media showed he’d been shot and his body left on a street. 

Kireev’s death comes a day after media reported that the purportedly pro-Russian mayor of Kreminna, Vlodymyr Struk, was found shot dead in the street after he was kidnapped from his home. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry condoned the killing, accusing him of working with Russia.     

In the last few days as the Russian invasion has grown in scale, Ukrainian forces have been accused of carrying out summary executions of so-called traitors in various parts of the country. 

Russia has begun to encircle the large and strategically key cities of Mariupol near the Black Sea in the south and Kharkiv in Ukraine’s northeast. Russian forces are making steady progress in efforts to seize eastern Ukraine.   

Civilians in both Mariupol and Kharkiv are suffering tremendous deprivation after days of brutal fighting. Diplomats from Russia and Ukraine agreed Friday to open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave the cities, but continued fighting has jeopardized relief efforts.   

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is in its 10th day and shows no sign of letting up as Russian forces make advances across eastern Ukraine and begin to concentrate their attack on Kyiv, the capital.  

On Saturday night, there were reports that Russian bombing was resuming in parts of eastern Ukraine and Kyiv after a day of relative calm. There were reports that the attack on Kyiv was becoming more intense. 

 A miles-long Russian military convoy heading toward Kyiv has been stalled for several days, in part due to logistical problems, according to Western military experts.    

The United Nations is warning that an additional 1.5 million people are on their way out of Ukraine, adding to the more than 1 million people who have already left Ukraine, a country of 44 million inhabitants. 

The war in Ukraine has upended world politics and posed a major risk that the United States and its NATO allies will be drawn into war with Russia.  

Ukraine’s government is pleading for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory but NATO has so far resisted such an action for fear of sparking a bigger war with Russia. 

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On Saturday, Putin warned the West that he would consider efforts to establish a no-fly zone an act of war.

 “The realization of that demand would bring catastrophic results not only to Europe but to the whole world,” Putin said during an event where he stood with Aeroflot stewardesses and praised them. Aeroflot, Russia's national carrier, has been banned from flying into Europe and the United States.

He also sent a chilling message saying that the West's punishing sanctions are "the equivalent to declaring a war."

The West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and its 142 million people. Russian banks and companies have been barred from the dollar-dominated international transaction system used by banks, the foreign assets owned by Russia's Central Bank have been frozen, an amount estimated at about $80 billion or more, its sports teams have been kicked out of international tournaments and most large Western companies have stopped doing business in Russia. Visa and Mastercard were the latest companies to cease operations in Russia, leaving Russian cardholders unable to use the credit cards. The hope in the West is that the sanctions will be so crippling that Putin is forced to negotiate and withdraw his troops or face such overwhelming pressure and public discontent inside Russia that his position as leader is put at risk.

"These (sanctions) are methods of fighting against Russia," Putin said. "These sanctions that you can see are equivalent to declaring a war, but thankfully it has not come to an actual war but we understand what these threats are about."

“The current leadership needs to understand that if they continue doing what they are doing, they risk the future of Ukrainian statehood,” Putin said. “If that happens they will have to be blamed for that.”

Though Putin is facing a very difficult war in Ukraine, and one that his military may still be unable to win, he has not been closed off entirely from the rest of the world with many large neighboring countries, including China, India and Pakistan, and others farther away continuing to do business with Russia. Also, Russian oil and gas have so far been exempted from Western sanctions due to European reliance on Russian energy, though intense negotiations were underway in Europe and Washington about shutting off energy imports too.

Diplomatically, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett may prove to a key bridge builder between Moscow and Kyiv. Israel has so far not joined the West in imposing sanctions and on Saturday Bennett flew to Moscow and spoke with Putin. He was allowed to fly despite it being Sabbath because such action is permitted under the Jewish faith when human lives are at stake.

Israel maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, countries with large Jewish populations. Bennett and Zelenskyy are the only two Jewish heads of state in the world. Bennett also spoke by telephone with Zelenskky and flew to Berlin to speak with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz about his visit with Putin. It is possible that Bennett may serve as a mediator.

The top editor of the Times of Israel, David Horovitz, said the trip had "extraordinarily high stakes" and he added that "trying to maintain not neutral but warm relations" with both Russia and Ukraine "may harm Israel's standing in the free world," as reported by news wires and news outlets.

Former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, said that "Bennet's action is bold but also risky."

"Russia is in a different position today, and Putin may be looking for a way out of his predicament," Oren said. "Naftali Bennet may just supply the ladder."

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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