Ukrainian authorities on Monday rejected Russia's demand that they drop their arms and surrender the strategic port city of Mariupol, where relentless Russian shelling and artillery fire has sparked the worst humanitarian crisis of the three-week war.
On Sunday, Russian military officials promised to allow "Ukrainian armed units and foreign mercenaries" to leave the city along a specified route Monday morning—provided that they agreed to stop resisting Russia's incursion into the city. Those who opted to continue fighting, Russia warned, would face "military tribunals."
But before Russia's 5 am deadline for surrender arrived, Ukrainian officials rejected the ultimatum and demanded that Russian forces allow thousands of trapped civilians to safely escape the city.
"There can be no question of any surrender, laying down of arms," said Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine's deputy prime minister. "We have already informed the Russian side about this."
"Instead of wasting time on eight pages of letters," she added, "just open a [humanitarian] corridor."
The humanitarian disaster in Mariupol has been worsening for days amid Russia's unending assault, which has reduced much of the city to rubble and left thousands without reliable access to food, water, and electricity. Local Ukrainian officials estimated last week that 80-90% of Mariupol's buildings have been damaged or completely destroyed by Russian attacks.
While the current death toll in the city is unknown, Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushchenko told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that "more than 3,000 civilians may have died since the fighting began."
Repeated attempts to allow civilians safe passage out of the city and import desperately needed humanitarian aid have collapsed in recent days, with Ukrainian and Russian forces accusing each other of violating ceasefire agreements. Despite such failures, thousands have been able to flee Mariupol in recent days, escaping incessant Russian shelling and intensifying guerrilla warfare in the city's streets.
"Mariupol residents have described a freezing hellscape riddled with dead bodies and destroyed buildings," Belkis Wille, HRW's senior crisis and conflict researcher, said Sunday. "And these are the lucky ones who were able to escape, leaving behind thousands who are cut off from the world in the besieged city."
"For those who were able to escape Mariupol, leaving friends and families behind, the news of recent evacuations has given them a bit of hope that those they love may make it out of the city alive," Wille added. "Russian and Ukrainian forces should urgently do what it takes to protect civilians remaining in Mariupol, and to allow those who want to leave the besieged city to do so in safety."
One 64-year-old woman who successfully fled Mariupol told HRW that she believes "those who are left will get killed or starve to death."
"We have nowhere to come back to," she said.
As the Financial Times noted, Russian forces view the capture of Mariupol as a crucial strategic objective as it would give them "control of a swath of Ukraine's southern coast along the strategically important Sea of Azov, and potentially allow Moscow to release troops tied up in the siege for other offensive operations."
"Mariupol's status is a sticking point in the peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, because it is part of the Ukrainian-held territory claimed by Russia-backed separatists," FT noted, citing two unnamed people briefed on the ongoing negotiations.
While both Russian and Ukrainian officials have spoken positively in recent days about the chances of diplomatic resolution, a breakthrough has thus far proven elusive. During the latest rounds of talks, the two sides have reportedly made progress toward a 15-point peace plan that would involve a complete withdrawal of Russian troops in exchange for a commitment from Ukraine to stay out of NATO.
Poland, a NATO member, is expected to formally propose during a NATO summit on Thursday that the alliance organize a "peacekeeping mission" in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden is set to attend the NATO summit in person as part of his trip to Europe this week.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday that American forces would not participate in the mission if Poland's proposal is approved.
"The president has been very clear that we will not put American troops on the ground in Ukraine," said Thomas-Greenfield. "We don't want to escalate this into a war with the United States."