Ukraine told: your statehood is in doubt as Russian bombs end ceasefire in Mariupol

Ukrainian soldiers help families fleeing the town of Irpin on Saturday
Ukrainian soldiers help families fleeing the town of Irpin on Saturday. Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP

Vladimir Putin delivered a chilling warning to the west over the imposition of sanctions on Russia on Saturday, warning that measures designed to cripple his country’s economy were “akin to an act of war”.

In comments that were both defiant and threatening, the Russian president also told Ukraine’s leaders that their nation risked being dismantled as an independent sovereign state if they continued to resist Russia’s invasion.

“The current leadership needs to understand that if they continue doing what they are doing, they risk the future of Ukrainian statehood,” Putin said. “If that happens they will have to be blamed for that.”

His intervention, in which he hinted the conflict could soon spread beyond Ukraine unless the west changed course, came as Moscow broke a ceasefire agreement to allow Ukrainian civilians to flee after 10 days of bombing and devastation.

Later, Russia’s foreign ministry followed up Putin’s warning by specifically singling out the UK for what it called “sanctions hysteria” and its prominent role in supporting Ukraine. Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Russia would not forget the UK’s cooperation with Kyiv.

“The sanctions hysteria in which London plays one of the leading, if not the main, roles, leaves us no choice but to take proportionately tough retaliatory measures,” she said, adding that Britain’s Russian interests would be “undermined” by Moscow’s response.

As tensions rose to new levels, and early hopes that diplomatic progress might be made in behind-the-scenes negotiations were dashed, the UK Foreign Office advised all Britons in Russia to leave without delay by any available commercial routes. The number of UK citizens in the country is estimated at upwards of 6,000.

Increasingly, European diplomats believe Putin sees the west’s supply of weaponry and other support to Ukraine as direct intervention of a kind that requires retaliation.

Referring to Ukraine’s demand for Nato to impose a no-fly zone over the country – which Nato has rejected – Putin added: “The realisation of that demand would bring catastrophic results not only to Europe but to the whole world.”

Digital board with a message to NATO
Kyiv calls on NATO to close the sky over Ukraine. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

On Saturday the prime minister Boris Johnson appeared undeterred by the escalation of Russia’s rhetoric, announcing a six-point plan “to ensure Putin fails” that includes supporting Ukraine in defending itself, and “maximising the economic pressure on Putin’s regime.”

Johnson said: “It is not enough to express our support for the rules-based international order – we must defend it against a sustained attempt to rewrite the rules by military force.”

On the ground, Ukraine claimed on Saturday to have destroyed more of Russia’s firepower. The armed forces said soldiers had shot down a helicopter and two warplanes, capturing three pilots. One of them had taken part in Russian bombing missions in Syria, it alleged.

Ukrainian troops launched a successful counter-attack in the Kharkiv region, seizing equipment and armoured vehicles. The city, Ukraine’s second biggest, has been under ferocious Russian bombardment.

On Saturday, in the south of the country residents flooded the main square in the city of Kherson and protested peacefully against the occupation. They waved Ukrainian flags and even hijacked a Russian armoured personnel carrier, taking it for a spin, to loud applause. Similar large-scale anti-Russian demonstrations took place in Melitopol, where Russian soldiers fired into the air, and the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk.

As the ceasefire agreements broke down, both sides blamed each other. The Kremlin blamed Ukraine for the collapse of a deal to evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol and the nearby town of Volnovakha, while Ukrainian officials said attempts to create a humanitarian corridor in the east for 200,000 trapped civilians failed because of shelling.

Despite the growing international alarm and the escalation of rhetoric, diplomatic efforts were underway this weekend to broker a way out of the crisis. It is understood President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, which has so far refused to impose sanctions on Moscow, is hoping to speak to Putin on Sunday to discuss a ceasefire. Diplomats believe Erdoğan is eyeing a potential role as interlocutor.

Meanwhile EU leaders will meet in Versailles in Paris on Thursday to try to come to a common position on Ukraine’s request for candidate status. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is believed to see putting his country on a “fast track” to joining the EU as crucial to securing its political future, even if Kyiv needs to offer Putin a guarantee of military neutrality in any talks on ending the war.

In Washington, there has been talk of offering Putin a so-called “golden bridge” – blocking all his avenues of advance while making retreat as attractive as possible. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Friday the door to negotiation was open. “If they show any signs of being willing to engage in meaningful diplomacy, of course we’ll engage,” he said.

But western diplomats do not believe Putin is in the mood to backdown or negotiate. Former UK foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said, however, that Putin must have been stung by the huge effects of the sanctions, particularly the blocking of 60% of Russia’s $600bn of foreign reserves.

US officials hope the economic pain inflicted on Russia will force Putin to climb down. But some critics of the Biden administration’s response argue the “golden bridge” has not been signposted clearly enough.

“If the goal is to compel, then the sanctioners need to be explicit about what Russia can do to get the sanctions lifted,” Dan Drezner, a political scientist and sanctions expert at Tufts University, wrote in the Washington Post. “That lack of clarity undermines coercive bargaining, because the targeted actor believes sanctions will stay in place no matter what they do.”