LONDON — Diplomatic activity accelerated on multiple fronts Monday as Russia’s war with Ukraine entered an uncertain new phase, with President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces stepping up their bombardment of Kyiv and other cities , hundreds of civilians fleeing the devastated port of Mariupol and the United States. warn China of its deep alignment with an isolated Russia.
There has been no breakthrough, neither at the negotiating tables nor on the battlefield. But as the human cost of war continued to mount, the flurry of developments suggested that people were groping for a way out of the crisis – or, failing that, ways to prevent it from turning into a war. by larger proxy.
In Rome, President Biden’s top national security aide, Jake Sullivan, met with a senior Chinese foreign official, Yang Jiechi, to try to get rid of one of Mr Putin’s few potential allies, after reports – denied by Moscow and Beijing – that Russia had requested military assistance from China and that the Chinese leadership was open to such a request. Mr. Sullivan, a Biden administration official said, had expressed “deep concerns” about “China’s alignment at this time.”
Ukrainian and Russian officials held another round of direct talks, adjourning with no sign of progress, though they agreed to meet again on Tuesday. The negotiations took place against a backdrop of thunderous Russian artillery strikes that led UN Secretary-General António Guterres to declare that Ukraine was “decimated in the eyes of the world”.
Mr Guterres, uncharacteristically angry, accused Russia of attacking 24 health facilities and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without water and electricity. After predicting there would be no war in Ukraine, he has now warned that there could be a catastrophic cascade of world hunger and food inflation, as Ukraine is one of the main grain producers in the world.
The impact on civilians, Mr Guterres said, “was reaching terrifying proportions”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky plans to address the US Congress on Wednesday in a virtual speech that could increase pressure on the Biden administration to send fighter jets to Kyiv.
In one of dozens of episodes of violence in Ukraine, a missile slammed into a building in a once-quiet area of kyiv just after dawn on Monday, when many residents were asleep. They had grown accustomed to the pounding sound of shelling after more than two weeks of Russian shelling, but never thought their building would be hit.
“We don’t have a military target near us,” said Yuriy Yurchik, 30. “We didn’t think we would be a target ourselves.”
Yet amid the drumbeat of horror, there were also glimpses of resilience. Hundreds of people fled Mariupol by car, according to the local government, even as a convoy of vehicles carrying food, water and medicine tried to find a safe path through the battle raging around this southeastern port city almost since the start of the war. Relatives of those still living in Mariupol said fleeing appeared to offer the best, perhaps only, chance for survival.
“I don’t think the humanitarian convoy will be of much help,” said Oleksandr Kryvoshapro, a humanitarian activist whose parents were in Mariupol. “Too many people are still there. And this once beautiful, large and ever-changing city is now completely destroyed. It is no longer possible to live there.”
Around 400,000 people are trapped in Mariupol, which enters its second week without heat, food or clean water. Attempts to reach the town and evacuate people failed day after day amid heavy fighting. The convoy en route on Monday was carrying 100 tons of relief supplies, officials said.
Russia besieged the city, a major industrial center on the Sea of Azov, creating a humanitarian catastrophe that led the International Committee of the Red Cross to issue an urgent appeal for a ceasefire to help the hundreds of thousands of people with no access to drinking water, food or heat.
“The corpses, of civilians and combatants, remain trapped under the rubble or lie in the open where they fell,” the ICRC said.
Casualty figures are difficult to confirm in the conflict. The United Nations estimated that at least 596 civilians were killed, but this figure is considered low due to the organization’s inability to access all combat areas. Ukrainian officials said more than 2,500 people died in Mariupol alone.
The death of a pregnant woman who had been photographed clutching her stomach as she was carried on a stretcher from a destroyed maternity ward which had been attacked.
Split-screen footage of slow diplomacy and sudden, brutal attacks on numerous civilian targets underscored the challenges of finding an acceptable exit ramp for Mr. Putin, even after a campaign that, by almost all accounts, turned out much worse for Russia than expected.
The Kremlin, faced with remarkably determined Ukrainian resistance and heavy battlefield casualties, pledged to complete its submission of the country “in full” and according to its original timetable. (It is unclear what this timeline is, although Russia denied, until just before the invasion, that it intended to send troops to Ukraine.) Russian officials have attempted to present the failure of their army to capture most major cities in Ukraine as an act. restraint.
Responding to Western claims that Russian forces were making slow progress in major cities, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said Mr Putin had ordered Russian troops to “refrain from storming the major cities, including kyiv” by February 24. invasion. The reason, he said, was that “armed clashes in urban areas would inevitably result in heavy casualties among civilians”. But he added that the towns are “already pretty much surrounded anyway”.
It is difficult to interpret Mr. Peskov’s statements, but they do not seem to exclude the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
On Monday, Putin spoke again with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, continuing Israel’s mediation efforts. The 90-minute call focused on the possibility of a ceasefire, a senior Israeli official said, and followed a call between Mr Bennett and President Zelensky of Ukraine on Saturday evening.
The prospect of Chinese involvement in support of Russia, however, increases the risk of a conflict that already threatens to drag the West down. This would lessen the impact of a transatlantic campaign to isolate Russia, ease some of the economic pressure on Mr Putin and give him a potential arms supplier to counter those flooding into Ukrainian troops from the US. United and other NATO countries.
“It really risks turning Ukraine into a proxy conflict in what could be a larger geopolitical competition between China and Russia on one side and the United States and its allies on the other,” he said. Evan S. Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University. and former Chinese policymaker in the Obama administration.
Mr Sullivan’s seven-hour meeting with Mr Yang had been planned long before the invasion, but it came a day after US officials briefed reporters on Moscow’s request for help from Beijing – a test of a new commitment to work together promised by Mr. Putin and President Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing last month. US intelligence agencies have learned of the Russian request in recent days.
It appears the request could include drones, secure communications and financial support, US officials said, although details are unclear. The United States has told its allies in diplomatic cables that China has given a positive signal to Russia, a European official said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the exchanges, which have first reported by the Financial Times.
Mr. Sullivan was “direct about these concerns and about the potential implications and consequences of certain actions,” an administration official said. But the official declined to give details of the exchange with Mr. Yang, a former Chinese ambassador to the United States.
China, which has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and has good relations with Ukraine, denied receiving any request for help from Moscow. But with much of the rest of the world cutting off trade, financial transactions and other economic interactions with Russia, which threatens to plunge the country into default, Mr Putin is clearly counting on his relationship with Russia. Mr. Xi to help him weather the crushing economic pressure – and perhaps emerge as a key military ally.
Clearly, the leak of intelligence that Russia requested China’s help was intended to put pressure on both sides. It was humiliating for Mr Putin, who is extremely sensitive to suggestions that he is the junior partner in the relationship between Moscow and Beijing.
But it also puts China in a difficult situation. Just before the Russian invasion, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi left no doubt that Beijing opposed military action. “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country must be respected and safeguarded,” he said. “Ukraine is no exception.”
If China provided military or economic support, it would violate this principle and risk being associated with the ongoing carnage. The White House has made it clear that it will respond to any effort to bail out Russia.
“Any support,” Mr Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “there would be consequences for that.”
Mark Landler reported from London and David E. Sanger from New York. Reporting was provided by Carlotta Gall from Kyiv, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Lviv, Ukraine, Eric Schmitt, Edward Wong and Julian Barnes from Washington, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, and Richard Pérez-Peña, Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone from New York.