Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed no let-up in his invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, even as the warring sides met for ceasefire talks and Kyiv demanded safe passage for besieged civilians.
After the fall of a first major Ukrainian city to Russian forces, Putin appeared in no mood to heed a global clamour for hostilities to end as the war entered its second week.
"Russia intends to continue the uncompromising fight against militants of nationalist armed groups," Putin said, according to a Kremlin account of a call with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Russian armoured columns from Crimea pushed deep into the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson on the first day of their invasion Thursday, triggering fighting that left at least 13 civilians dead.
Nine Ukrainian soldiers were also killed, the Kherson regional administration said, as the Russian force seized crossing points from Crimea to the mainland and a crossing over the Dnipro river.
But Ukraine insisted on the need for humanitarian corridors, to get urgent supplies into cities and trapped civilians out, as negotiators met at an undisclosed location on the Belarus-Poland border.
They shook hands across a table at the meeting's start, the Ukrainian delegates in military khaki clothing and the Russians in more formal business suits
A first round of talks on Monday yielded no breakthrough, and Kyiv says it will not accept any Russian "ultimatums."
Putin, however, said any attempts to slow the talks process would "only lead to additional demands on Kyiv in our negotiating position."
Macron said he feared that "worse is to come" in the conflict and condemned Putin's "lies," according to an aide.
The invasion, now in its eighth day, has created a refugee exodus and turned Russia into a global pariah in the worlds of finance, diplomacy and sports.
The UN has opened a probe into alleged war crimes, as the Russian military bombards cities in Ukraine with shells and missiles, forcing civilians to cower in basements.
"We will restore every house, every street, every city and we say to Russia: learn the word 'reparations'," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video statement.
"You will reimburse us for everything you did against our state, against every Ukrainian, in full," he said.
'Just like Leningrad'
Zelensky claims thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed since Putin shocked the world by invading Ukraine, purportedly to demilitarise and "de-Nazify" a Western-leaning threat on his borders.
Moscow said Wednesday that it has lost 498 troops, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin praised their sacrifice.
"Their exploits will enter into the history books, their exploits in the struggle against the Nazis," Peskov told reporters.
The Kremlin has been condemned for likening the government of Zelensky, who is Jewish, to that of Germany in World War II.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept up the verbal barrage, accusing Western politicians of fixating on "nuclear war" after Putin placed his strategic forces on high alert.
While a long military column appears stalled north of Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Russian troops seized Kherson, a Black Sea city of 290,000 people, after a three-day siege that left it short of food and medicine.
Russian troops are also besieging the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, which is without water or electricity in the depths of winter.
"They are trying to create a blockade here, just like in Leningrad," Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said, referring to the brutal Nazi siege of Russia's second city, now re-named Saint Petersburg.
Ukrainian authorities said residential and other areas in the eastern city of Kharkiv had been "pounded all night" by indiscriminate shelling, which UN prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.
Oleg Rubak's wife Katia, 29, was crushed in the rubble of their family home in Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, by a Russian missile strike.
"One minute I saw her going into the bedroom. A minute later there was nothing," Rubak, 32, told AFP amid the ruins in the bitter winter chill.
"I hope she's in heaven and all is perfect for her," he said, adding through tears, "I want the whole world to hear my story."
The war has displaced more than one million people, according to the United Nations.
"Protect civilians, for God's sake, in Ukraine; let us do our job," UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths told AFP in Geneva.
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency urged Russia to "cease all actions" at Ukraine's nuclear facilities, including the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Putin now finds himself an international outcast, his country the subject of tightened sanctions that sent the ruble into further freefall on currency markets on Thursday.
Russia's central bank – whose foreign reserves have been frozen in the West – imposed a 30-percent tax on all sales of hard currency, following a run on lenders by ordinary Russians.
The unfolding financial costs were underlined as ratings agencies Fitch and Moody's slashed Russia's sovereign debt to "junk" status.
Turmoil deepened on markets more broadly. European stocks slid and oil prices approached US$120 per barrel.
Swedish furniture giant Ikea became the latest to halt operations in Russia, as well as Belarus.
Russia's sporting isolation also worsened as it lost the right to host Formula One races. The International Paralympic Committee, in a U-turn, banned Russians and Belarusians from the Beijing Winter Games.
The UN General Assembly voted 141-5 to demand that Russia "immediately" withdraw from Ukraine. Only four countries supported Russia, and China abstained.
Europe stepped up practical support as well as diplomatic. The German government is planning to deliver another 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a source said.
Leaving everything behind
Many Ukrainians have now fled into nearby countries, according to the UN refugee agency's rapidly rising tally.
"We left everything there as they came and ruined our lives," refugee Svitlana Mostepanenko told AFP in Prague.
Nathalia Lypka, a professor of German from the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, arrived in Berlin with her 21-year-old daughter.
"My husband and son stayed... My husband already served in the army, and he had to return to duty," she said, before boarding a train for Stuttgart where friends were waiting.
Putin's invasion has appeared hamstrung by poor logistics, tactical blunders and resistance from Ukraine's outgunned military -- as well as its ever-swelling ranks of volunteer fighters.
Russian authorities have imposed a media blackout on what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a "special military operation".
Two liberal media groups – Ekho Moskvy radio and TV network Dozhd – said they were halting operations, in another death-knell for independent reporting in Putin's Russia.
But Russians have still turned out for large anti-war protests across the country, braving mass arrests in a direct challenge to the president's 20-year rule.
by Dmitry Zaks & Dmytro Gorshkov, AFP