Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy insists his nation is unwilling to give up territory in the eastern part of the country to end the nearly two-month-old war in Russia.
In an interview with CNN on Friday, Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s military is ready to fight Moscow’s military in Donbas because it has no guarantee Russia wouldn’t try again to seize its capital city Kyiv.
“This is why it is very important for us to not allow them, to stand our ground, because this battle … it can influence the course of the whole war,” Zelenskyy said. “Because I don’t trust the Russian military and Russian leadership. That is why we understand that the fact that we fought them off and they left, and they were running away from Kyiv — from the north, from Chernihiv and from that direction — it doesn’t mean if they are able to capture Donbas, they won’t come further towards Kyiv.”
Zelenskyy told CNN the world should “be ready” for the possibility that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would use a tactical nuclear weapon because he does not value Ukrainian lives, calling the Russian offensive genocide. His warning came on the same day that Pope Francis also raised the threat of nuclear war during a service in which he condemned Russia triggering an “Easter of War.”
“Look what happened in Bucha. It’s clear that is not even a war, it’s a genocide,” he said. “They just killed people. Not soldiers, people. They just shot people in the streets. People were riding bicycles, taking the bus or just walking down the street. There were corpses lining the streets.”
He also said he wants President Joe Biden to come to Ukraine.
“I think he will,” Zelenskyy said. “I mean, his decision, of course. And as well, the safety situation depends — I mean that — but I think he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s why he should come here to see.”
He also lamented politicians around the world who’ve vowed the Holocaust will never happen again as they celebrated International Holocaust Remembrance Day last Thursday.
“I don’t believe the world,” he said. “We don’t believe the words. After the escalation of Russia, we don’t believe our neighbors. We don’t believe all of this.”
“The only belief, there is belief in ourselves, in our people, belief in our Armed Forces, and the belief that countries are going to support us not just with their words but with their actions,” Zelenskyy continued in Ukrainian. “And that’s it. Never again. Really, everybody is talking about this and yet, as you can see, not everyone has got the guts.”
Ukrainian soldiers, meanwhile, resisted a Russian ultimatum to lay down arms on Sunday in the pulverized port of Mariupol, which Moscow said its forces had almost completely seized in what would be its biggest prize of the nearly two-month war.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said troops in Mariupol were still fighting despite a Russian demand to surrender by dawn.
“The city still has not fallen,” he told ABC’s “This Week” program, adding that Ukrainian soldiers continue to control some parts of the city.
Russia said on Saturday it had control of urban parts of the city, with some Ukrainian fighters remaining in the Azovstal steel works overlooking the Sea of Azov.
Capturing Mariupol, the main port in the southeastern region of Donbas, would be a strategic prize for Russia, connecting territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
After failing to overcome Ukrainian resistance in the north, the Russian military has refocused its ground offensive on Donbas while maintaining long-distance strikes elsewhere including the capital, Kyiv.
About four million Ukrainians have fled the country, cities have been shattered and thousands have died since the start of the invasion on Feb. 24.
“The occupiers will be responsible for everything they did in Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said on his Telegram account, posting images of destruction he said were akin to the “terrible times” of World War II.
‘CRUEL AND SENSELESS WAR’
Implicitly criticizing Russia, Pope Francis pleaded for an end to the bloodshed and lamented the “Easter of War” during his address in St. Peter’s Square after Mass.
“May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of the cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged,” he said.
Zelenskyy accused Russia on Saturday of “deliberately trying to destroy everyone” in Mariupol and said his government was in touch with the defenders.
The Azovstal steel works, one of Europe’s biggest metallurgical plants with a maze of rail tracks and blast furnaces, has become a last stand for the outnumbered defenders.
“All who lay down their arms are guaranteed that their lives will be spared,” Russia’s defense ministry said.
It was not known how many soldiers were in the steel works. Satellite images have shown smoke and fire coming from the area, which is riddled with tunnels. Zelenskyy has said killing his troops would put paid to peace efforts.
Russia said Ukraine had lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Mariupol as of Saturday. Kyiv says its total troop losses nationwide so far in the war are less than that, between 2,500 and 3,000. Reuters has not been able to verify either side’s figures.
Russia calls its action a special military operation to demilitarize Ukraine and eradicate what it calls dangerous nationalists backed by an expansionist NATO military alliance. The West and Kyiv accuse President Vladimir Putin of unprovoked aggression.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were more reports on Sunday of Russian strikes around major population centers.
Local media reported an explosion in Kyiv, though deputy mayor Mykola Povoroznyk said air defense systems had thwarted Russian attacks. The mayor of Brovary city, close to Kyiv, said a missile attack had damaged infrastructure.
Russia said it had destroyed an ammunition factory near the capital, according to the RIA news agency.
Shelling in Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, killed five people and injured 13, Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne reported. A Reuters correspondent in Kharkiv heard multiple explosions in quick succession and saw debris from missiles.
As cleanup operations continued in areas where the Russians have retreated, Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman said almost all high-rise buildings in the town of Okhtyrka were unfit for occupation. The State Emergencies Service said 41 bodies had been recovered in the town of Borodyanka.
Most Ukrainians celebrate Orthodox Easter next Sunday, but in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv where Ukraine accuses Russia of killing dozens of civilians, some 50 people attended a church service, carrying pussy willow and praying for the dead.
Russia denies targeting civilians and has called images from Bucha fake.
“I just prayed today to stop crying,” said resident Evgeniya Lebedko after the service. “We have survived these horrors and we are constantly crying. And I don’t want those tears to fall but I go out every day and I smell it and I cry all the time.”
Despite the desperate situation in Mariupol, Ukraine said it was holding off Russian forces in other parts of the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which before the invasion were already partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
On Sunday, police in Donetsk region said that over the past 24 hours, Russian forces opened fire from tanks, multiple rocket launchers and heavy artillery on 13 settlements under Ukrainian control, killing two civilians.
Luhansk Governor Sehriy Gaidai said that since the start of the war, all but 20,000 of acting capital Sievierodonetsk’s 130,000 residents had left the city. Shelling of the town of Zolote on Sunday killed at least two people, he added.
Material from Reuters news service was also used in this story.