Ukrainian forces and residents of Mariupol continued what the government called “heroic” resistance to a brutal Russian attack as the Pentagon and the EU’s top diplomat accused Russia of committing war crimes who killed thousands of people and reduced the city to rubble.
Live briefing: Russia invades Ukraine
RFE/RL Ukraine live briefing brings you all the latest news on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbour, kyiv’s response, the plight of civilians and the Western reaction. The Live Briefing presents the latest developments and analysis, updated throughout the day.
As Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol fought to stave off the deadly March 21 assault, Russian forces stepped up and expanded their attacks elsewhere, including on the capital, Kyiv, where an airstrike on a shopping center and a nearby building killed at least eight people.
Ukraine’s President President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remained defiant as authorities rejected a Russian ultimatum to hand over Mariupol, saying Ukraine could never abandon the strategic port or other cities including Kharkiv and the capital, Kyiv .
In comments to local media on March 21, Zelenskiy accused Moscow of trying to “destroy” his country.
“Ukraine cannot respond to Russian ultimatums,” he said. “We should be destroyed first, then their ultimatum would be fulfilled.”
He said the Russians wanted Ukraine to “deliver” the cities of kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, but that neither the Ukrainian people “nor I as president can do that.”
As the war entered its fourth week, mixed reports emerged of attempts to find a negotiated settlement.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were close to agreeing on “critical” issues and that he hoped for a possible ceasefire soon in the conflict.
For two weeks, Russia has been trying to encircle Mariupol, an important port on the Sea of Azov. It seeks to take control of the city, allowing it to connect Crimea – which it seized in 2014 – with territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
At least 2,300 people have died in Mariupol, some buried in mass graves, authorities said.
On March 20, an attack destroyed an art school housing some 400 people in the city. There was no immediate report of casualties, but authorities fear many people are still under the rubble.
WATCH: Russian troops occupying the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson fired live ammunition and stun grenades at peaceful protesters. Amateur video showed at least one injured person.
The attack came after Russian airstrikes on March 16 razed a theater in Mariupol where civilians were also sheltering. City authorities said 130 people had been rescued but many more could remain under the rubble.
In addition, Russian forces were accused of bombing a maternity ward in the city, where around 90% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed.
On March 21, the US military accused Russian forces of committing war crimes during their bloody invasion of Ukraine.
“We certainly see clear evidence that Russian forces are committing war crimes and we are helping to collect evidence,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. said at a press briefing.
Earlier, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, said “what is happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombing and killing everyone.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov hailed Mariupol’s “heroic defenders” after authorities rejected an ultimatum from Russia to abandon the beleaguered city at 5 a.m., saying it was “not question of surrender”.
Reznikov said their resistance slowed the progress of the Russian military and disrupted attempts to subjugate other Ukrainian cities.
“Thanks to their superhuman dedication and courage, tens of thousands of lives across Ukraine have been saved. Today, Mariupol saves Kyiv, Dnipro and Odessa,” he said.
Residents of Mariupol, which had a population of 400,000 before the outbreak of the war, have been trapped for two weeks without basic supplies, such as water, food and fuel.
In Kyiv, airstrikes hit the Retroville shopping center in the capital’s northwestern outskirts late on March 20, killing at least eight people. The mall, surrounded by several high-rise apartment buildings in kyiv’s Podil district, was still smoldering on the morning of March 21.
RFE/RL correspondents saw devastating scenes in the area, with workers attempting rescue efforts as ambulances, police and firefighters converged on the area.
A man, who said he lives about a kilometer away, told RFE/RL: “I have never felt the earth shake like this. It was a powerful explosion.”
“They are killing my city. They are killing the place where I live,” he added.
Hours after the attack, Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian capital’s mayor, announced a new 35-hour curfew that will come into effect at 8 p.m. on March 21.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but Ukrainian forces mounted fierce resistance and the West imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow in a bid to force it to withdraw its forces.
Zelenskiy renewed his call for negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 20 interview with CNN.
“I’m ready to negotiate with him,” Zelenskiy told CNN. “If there’s only a 1% chance for us to stop this war, I think we have to take that chance…to have the chance to negotiate, the chance to talk to Putin.
“If these attempts fail, it would mean that this is a Third World War,” he said.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 21 that “significant progress” in peace talks between negotiators was needed before a meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy was on the cards.
Poland and the Baltic countries are pushing for tougher sanctions, including an EU ban on imports of Russian oil and gas. However, Germany, which relies heavily on Russian gas, and some other EU member states are resisting.
WATCH: Kyiv residents have expressed shock after a massive Russian airstrike destroyed a shopping center and also hit residential buildings. At least eight people were reportedly killed.
Peskov said Europe would be hit hard in the event of an embargo on Russian oil, affecting the continent’s energy balance.
The Russian military claimed it had for the first time in combat used its state-of-the-art hypersonic missile to hit particularly important targets in Ukraine, a move widely condemned in the West.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on March 21 that the Kinzhal hypersonic missile “has proven its effectiveness in destroying heavily fortified special facilities.”
Russia has denied targeting civilians, despite overwhelming evidence of deadly attacks on non-military sites.
Observers have speculated that Russian military momentum has been halted by Ukrainian forces in many parts of the country and that the sides could be heading for a long and protracted stalemate in the war.
Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, said on March 20 that at least 10 million of Ukraine’s population of 44 million had fled their homes.
About 3.4 million people have crossed Ukraine’s borders into neighboring countries, most of them arriving in Poland, a member of NATO and the European Union.