Ukraine says 'confrontational' Russia talks moving forward as West plans more sanctions

Putin's incursion into Ukraine has forced more than 3.5 million to flee the country

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Talks between Ukraine and Russia are confrontational but moving forward, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday, as the West plans to announce more sanctions against the Kremlin amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Intense Russian air strikes are turning besieged Mariupol into the "ashes of a dead land", the city council said on Tuesday, as street fighting and bombardments raged in the port city.

Hundreds of thousands are believed to be trapped inside buildings, with no access to food, water, power or heat. Both civilians and Ukrainian troops were coming under Russian fire, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.

A satellite image shows buildings on fire, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS.
A satellite image shows buildings on fire, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS.

Russian forces and Russian-backed separatist units had taken about half of the port city, normally home to around 400,000 people, Russia's RIA news agency said, citing a separatist leader.

But in an early morning address, Zelenskyy held out hope for negotiations, which have yielded little since the Feb. 24 invasion began.

"It's very difficult, sometimes confrontational," he said. "But step by step we are moving forward."

A satellite image shows burning and destroyed apartment buildings, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS.
A satellite image shows burning and destroyed apartment buildings, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's incursion into Ukraine has forced more than 3.5 million to flee, brought the unprecedented isolation of Russia's economy, and raised fears of wider conflict in the West unthought-of for decades.

Mariupol has become the focus of the war that erupted when Putin sent his troops over the border on what he calls a "special military operation" to demilitarise Ukraine and replace its pro-Western leadership.

The port city lies on the Sea of Azov and its capture would allow Russia to link areas in the east held by pro-Russian separatists with the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Western nations plan to heap more pressure on the Kremlin.

Alongside European leaders, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to announce new sanctions against Russia and new measures to tighten existing ones when he visits Brussels this week.

A satellite image shows a closer view of damaged Azovstal's metallurgical factory buildings, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS.
A satellite image shows a closer view of damaged Azovstal's metallurgical factory buildings, in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS.

The United States is preparing sanctions on more than 300 members of Russia's lower house of parliament as soon as Thursday, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed officials and internal documents.

"No final decisions have been made about who we will sanction and how many we will sanction," said a White House spokesperson.

"We will have additional sanctions measures to announce that will be rolled out in conjunction with our allies on Thursday when the President has the opportunity to speak with them."

Biden's Europe trip is also set to include an announcement on joint action to enhance energy security on the continent, which is highly reliant on Russian gas, and a visit to Poland to show solidarity with Ukraine's neighbour.

Having failed to seize the capital Kyiv or any other major city with a swift offensive, Russia is waging a war of attrition that has reduced some urban areas to rubble and prompted Western concern that the conflict could escalate, even to a nuclear war.

Russia's security policy dictates that the country would only use such weapons if its very existence were threatened, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN.

"If it is an existential threat for our country, then it (the nuclear arsenal) can be used in accordance with our concept," he said.

Earlier he said "no one" had ever thought the operation in Ukraine would take just a couple of days and the campaign was going to plan, TASS news agency reported.

Western officials said Russian forces were stalled around Kyiv but making some progress in the south and east. Ukrainian fighters are repelling Russian troops in some places but cannot roll them back, they said.

Russia's combat power in Ukraine has declined below 90% of its pre-invasion levels, a senior U.S. defence official said on Tuesday, without providing evidence. If confirmed, it would suggest heavy losses of weaponry and growing casualties