Human costs mount in the third week of war in Ukraine

Refugees and displaced Ukrainians have passed the five million mark, as Russia encircles cities and pounds them with missiles.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine completed its third week, sieges tightened around Kyiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv, and Russia fired missiles into the heart of urban centres, targeting hospitals, schools, and high-rise apartment blocks.

The United Nations says more than three million Ukrainians are now refugees, and two million are internally displaced. Ukrainian officials say many thousands of civilians have died.

“A children’s hospital. A maternity hospital. How did they threaten the Russian Federation?” asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video address on March 9, after Russia bombed hospitals in Mariupol and Zhytomyr.

Bombs also fell on central Kyiv all week, as Russian troops, apparently unable to advance, sent missiles from 15km away.

“Russian troops are methodically turning our life into a hell. People day and night have to sit underground without food, water or electricity,” the head of the Kyiv region, Oleksiy Kuleba, said on Ukrainian television.

Russia escalated psychological warfare on Ukrainians – and especially on the port of Mariupol. A Russian air attack hit a supposedly safe corridor to the city on March 10, while Russian troops pillaged a convoy of humanitarian aid meant for the city on March 12, and blocked another two days later.

Separately, a Russian air attack hit a westbound train evacuating civilians from the east on March 12, killing one.

Those who do make it to Poland, Romania, and other European Union destinations have often been traumatised by the sight of destruction, the death of loved ones, and family separation.

“I just talked to Yana, a 13-year-old teenager from Mykolaiv, evacuated with her family,” said Zoran Stevanovich, a UNHCR communications officer. “She is not fully grasping the situation they are in. They don’t know where they are going to go, but she’s happy she has a [wi-fi] hotspot …The elderly are probably the most vulnerable, and in the most difficult situation mentally,” he told Al Jazeera.

United States Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby said on March 9 that the US is looking into providing Ukraine with anti-aircraft defence systems, rather than approving the transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets. Poland has been eager to transfer its MiG-29s to Ukraine, but its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said it must be approved by all NATO members.

Sanctions mount

International sanctions tightened further in the third week of war, with the EU and the US announcing a new round of co-ordinated bans of Russian imports.

The US House of Representatives approved a ban on Russian oil imports to the US by a majority of 414-17 on March 10. The following day, the US led a new round of sanctions, backed by the G7. These include depriving Russia of its trade privileges under WTO membership, cutting off financing from multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and banning the import of luxury goods, such as vodka, seafood, and diamonds.

On March 14, the French presidency of the EU said member states had agreed upon a fourth package of sanctions against Russia, including revoking most favoured nation trade status, and a ban on iron, steel, and luxury goods.

There were signs that Russia is straining under combined military and financial pressure.

The World Bank said that Russia was in “default territory”, as the country became increasingly isolated from the global economy. Russia itself said that the US had declared an “economic war” against it.

“Russia is a poor country, it turns out, and not in a position to finance an extensive campaign,” Thanos Veremis, professor emeritus of history at Athens University, told Al Jazeera. “Russia didn’t want to show this, because a shroud of mystery is better than the truth.”

To get it out of what is rapidly turning into a quagmire, Russian president Vladimir Putin welcomed unpaid mercenaries from Syria, and US officials told media on March 13 that Russia had asked China for direct military assistance, raising the prospect that China might also offer its ally financial assistance.

The US quickly moved to pressure China not to assist Russia, with the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meeting with Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi on March 14.

“We are communicating directly and privately to Beijing that there absolutely will be consequences” if China helps Russia against sanctions, he told CNN. “We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world,” Sullivan said.

As it weakened Russia, the US strengthened Ukraine, with the US Congress approving a $13.6bn package of military and humanitarian aid on March 10.

The war’s international economic effect is starting to show in the numbers. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said on March 10 that the war in Ukraine, along with sanctions against Russia, have led to a contraction in global trade, and the IMF is to lower its global growth forecast next month.

It had already revised its global growth forecast for 2022 downwards by half a percentage point in January to 4.4 percent, citing renewed mobility restrictions due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and high inflation due to energy costs and supply disruptions.

Diplomacy not dead

Hopes for a negotiated settlement have risen slightly.

On March 10, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba met in Turkey, in the highest-level talks since the war began. There was no ceasefire agreement, but Lavrov left open the possibility of further talks and a meeting between the two countries’ presidents.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators expressed optimism on March 13. “I think that we will achieve some results literally in a matter of days,” said Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak.

Russian negotiator Leonid Slutsky was also positive.

“According to my personal expectations, this progress may grow in the coming days into a joint position of both delegations, into documents for signing,” Slutsky said.

“I imagine [the Russians] wish it were all over by now, and they are trying to find a solution in talks,” said Veremis.

The nub of negotiations will be the Crimea, he believes.

“It seems [Putin] wants the entire littoral, which would landlock Ukraine. Are these negotiations real or sham – for the Russians to show they are negotiating and not intransigent?”