With basic survival in Ukraine growing increasingly precarious, civilian evacuation efforts largely sputtered Wednesday across a country battered by a relentless Russian assault that officials said severely damaged a maternity hospital.
Ukraine’s government had announced a daylong cease-fire along several corridors around the country that were designated for the safe exit of residents. The routes covered some of the hardest-hit areas, including the southern port city of Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped for days with no electricity and water and dwindling supplies of food and medicine.
But late Wednesday afternoon, Russia appeared to break the cease-fire when bombs slammed into a hospital complex in the city, burying children in the wreckage. Images showed emergency responders carrying a bloodied pregnant woman through a courtyard littered with mangled cars and a heavily damaged building still smoldering.
The bombs added to the misery of a blocked city where hungry residents have begun breaking into stores and officials dug a mass grave to bury dozens of soldiers and civilians killed in recent days.
President Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack an atrocity and appealed again to the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
But while the attack prompted international outrage and calls to supply Ukraine with additional antiaircraft weaponry, Western officials continued to rule out the possibility of a no-fly zone.
“If I were in President Zelensky’s position, I’m sure I would be asking for everything possible,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during a news conference in Washington.
But, he said, the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization want to end “senseless bloodshed” and not escalate the conflict by provoking Russia by flying in aircraft or launching attacks from NATO countries.
“Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it,” Blinken said.
US officials have looked for alternative ways to support Ukraine without being drawn into a wider war.
The US has sent Patriot missile-defense systems to Poland, where Vice President Kamala Harris touched down Wednesday for a three-day trip aimed at shoring up transatlantic efforts to further isolate Russia, and congressional leaders reached an agreement on a spending bill that includes $ 13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that officials were discussing the “logistical issues” of American support for Ukraine, such as “how do you get plans into Ukraine in a way that is not escalatory?”
Meanwhile, the bombardments across wide parts of Ukraine continued despite an agreed-upon cease-fire.
Previous cease-fire deals have also fallen apart because of continued Russian shelling along the so-called humanitarian corridors, Ukraine says, with only the route from Sumy to the city of Poltava seeing an appreciable number of evacuees. The routes all lead to other parts of Ukraine; Moscow had been criticized for its previous offer of safe routes that would funnel refugees to Russia and to its ally Belarus, which was a launchpad for invading forces from the north.
“Hundreds of people were saved. The humanitarian corridor was delivered, ”Zelensky said earlier Wednesday. “But that’s only 1% of what needs to be done.”
He blamed the breakdown of past cease-fire agreements on Russian “savages” who kept up their attacks on defenseless civilians, and he urged patience among his compatriots who are trying to reach safety.
“Humanitarian corridors will still work,” Zelensky said. “And only time separates you from freedom.”
Zelensky, whose frequent video addresses in his military olive T-shirt have endeared him to his people for their mix of defiance and encouragement, thanked President Biden for his decision this week to ban Russian oil and gas imports.
“I’m grateful personally to US President Biden for this decision, for his leadership, for this most powerful signal to the whole world,” the Ukrainian leader said. “It is very simple: Every penny paid to Russia turns into bullets and shells which are directed at other sovereign states.”
The sanctions targeting one of Russia’s most lucrative industries are part of a wider international effort to isolate the country from the world economy and sap its ability to wage war in Ukraine.
In recent days, a number of high-profile US businesses have said that they would temporarily close locations in Russia or stop selling their products there, including McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola.
More than 2.1 million people have fled Ukraine, the United Nations says, making it Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II. Most have gone west, to Poland and Hungary, in such numbers that others are now heading south, to Romania, to avoid the bottleneck.
Despite spirited resistance from both regular and irregular Ukrainian fighters, Russian troops continue to try to draw the net tighter around key cities. The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Russian forces were placing equipment at farms and residences around Chernihiv, about 80 miles northeast of Kyiv, the capital.
Residents of Chernihiv have been leaving the city to escape the heavy fighting, with some reporting that it was now under de facto Russian control. With the highway to Kyiv cut, those fleeing traversed back roads through small towns and villages.
In Kozelets, about halfway between Chernihiv and Kyiv, nervous villagers trained a machine gun at every passing car on the highway to the capital.
“Yesterday we had more than 100 refugees pass by from Chernihiv,” said Irina, an administrator in Kozelets who gave only her first name.
At a small local hospital, Andre Kholyavko, 32, was recovering from shrapnel wounds to his right arm, which lay bandaged by his side. Kholyavko left Chernihiv on Feb. 25, the second day of the invasion, evacuating his mother, wife and 4-year-old son to Slabin, a small village outside the city.
“The day we left there more than a hundred strikes,” he said.
But the Russian shells followed him: Late last week, as he collected wood with his son and his sister, the rockets started raining down. “I barely had time to cover my son,” he recalled.
Ukrainian officials also said Wednesday that the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant – the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, in 1986 – had lost access to the power grid, forcing it to rely on backup generators. Authorities called for a halt to fighting in the area, which is under Russian control, to allow for repairs, lest the plant suffer a catastrophic interruption to the cooling of radioactive material.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been informed of the loss of electricity but saw “no critical impact on safety.” Utility company Ukrenergo said “military actions” meant there was currently “no possibility to restore” the plant’s connection to the grid.
In southern Ukraine, the military general staff said Russian soldiers disguised as civilians were trying to infiltrate Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding hub whose capture would be key to establishing a stranglehold along the Black and Azov seas. Kherson, about 40 miles southeast of Mykolaiv, is now under Russian control – the only significant city so far to fall, at least officially, since the invasion began Feb. 24.
The Russians had overrun Mykolaiv’s airport, but it was retaken by Ukrainian forces, the region’s governor, Vitaliy Kim, said this week.
On Wednesday, Kim said food and water supplies remained stable, but some residents were leaving because of airstrikes.
“That’s why people are moving to the west – not because we have any humanitarian catastrophe,” Kim told the BBC. “They are afraid of bombs.”
He sounded an optimistic note on the ability of his city to hold out under the constant barrage.
“We are going to defend and attack also. The enemy is very exhausted – he is without diesel and without ammo, no motivation, ”Kim said. “So I think the situation is not very bad for us.”
Bulos reported from Kozelets, Chu from London and Linthicum from Mexico City. Anumita Kaur and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.