Over 1 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, in the swiftest refugee exodus this century, the United Nations said Thursday, as Moscow said it was ready for more talks to end fighting even as its forces pressed their assaults on the country’s second-largest city and two strategic seaports.
This is also as no less than 227 civilians have been killed and another 525 wounded since the invasion began, according to the latest figures from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Earlier, Ukraine said more than 2,000 civilians have died, a figure that could not be independently verified.
EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson said Thursday ahead of a special meeting of justice and home affairs ministers that “we have to be prepared for millions of refugees to come to the European Union.”
The bloc is already moving toward granting temporary protection to those fleeing war, seeking to give temporary residence permits to refugees and allow them rights to education and work in the 27-nation bloc.
The EU Commission has already promised at least 500 million euros ($560 million) in humanitarian aid for the refugees. Johansson said the bloc will need funding and equipment.
The tally the United Nations’ refugee agency released by Wednesday reached over 2% of Ukraine’s population being forced out of the country in seven days. The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, a city of about 1.5 million people where residents desperate to escape falling shells and bombs crowded the city’s train station and pressed onto trains, not always knowing where they were headed.
With a column of tanks and other vehicles apparently stalled for days outside the capital of Kyiv, fighting continued on multiple fronts across Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a second round of talks aimed at ending the fighting was expected later Thursday in neighboring Belarus — though the two sides appeared to have little common ground.
“We are ready to conduct talks, but we will continue the operation because we won’t allow Ukraine to preserve a military infrastructure that threatens Russia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, adding that it would let Ukrainians to choose what government they should have.
Lavrov said that the West has continuously armed Ukraine, trained its troops and built up bases there to turn Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia — repeating Russian claims that it has used to justify its operation in Ukraine.
The U.S. and its allies have insisted that NATO is a defensive alliance that doesn’t pose a threat to Russia. And the West fears Russia’s invasion is meant to overthrow Ukraine’s government and install a friendly government.
The U.N. office uses strict methodology and counts only confirmed casualties, and admits its figures are a vast undercount.
Still, the tally eclipses the entire civilian casualty count from the fighting in 2014 in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces — which left 136 dead and 577 injured.
Moscow’s isolation deepened when most of the world lined up against it at the United Nations to demand it withdraw from Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military said Russian forces “did not achieve the main goal of capturing Mariupol” in its statement, which did not mention the another important port, Kherson, whose status was unclear.
Putin’s forces claimed to have taken complete control of Kherson, and U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Thursday that it was “possible — it’s not verified yet — that Russia is in control” there.
A senior U.S. defense official earlier disputed the Russians controlled the city.
The mayor of Kherson, Igor Kolykhaev, said Russian soldiers were in the city and came to the city administration building. He said he asked them not to shoot civilians and to allow crews to gather up the bodies from the streets.
“We don’t have any Ukrainian forces in the city, only civilians and people here who want to LIVE,” he said in a statement later posted on Facebook.
must be observed.”
In other developments, Hungary’s government is insisting it will not allow any arms shipments bound for neighboring Ukraine to cross its territory, as the European Union country receives tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict and frets about the reliability of its energy links to Moscow.
This is just as Germany, Thursday, approved sending 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine.
The report quoted unnamed Economy Ministry officials on Thursday saying the weapons are Soviet-made, shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles left over from East German army supplies.
Germany reversed its previous refusal to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons last week following Russia’s invasion.
Berlin has already authorized sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine.
In sports, Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from the Winter Paralympic Games for their countries’ roles in the war in Ukraine, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said Thursday in Beijing.
The about-face comes less than 24 hours after the IPC on Wednesday said it would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as neutral athletes with colors, flags and other national symbols removed.
The IPC received immediate criticism for its initial decision. It was termed a betrayal that sent the wrong message to Russia’s leadership. The IPC also said it was evident that many athletes would refuse to compete against Russians or Belarusians, creating chaos for the Paralympics.
The IPC now joins sports like soccer, track, basketball, hockey and others that have imposed blanket bans on Russians and Belarusians.
Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings, Thursday, has downgraded Russia’s credit rating, citing a “severe shock” to fundamental conditions due to its invasion of Ukraine.
Fitch said the war has raised risks to financial stability and could undermine Russia’s ability to service its government debt. It said that, in turn, will weaken the country’s finances and slow its economy, further raising geopolitical risks and uncertainty.
Among other factors, the ratings agency noted sanctions imposed by Western countries that are limiting access to foreign currency needed to repay debt and purchase imports and increased uncertainty over Russia’s willingness to pay such debts.