Putin likens sanctions to 'declaring war,' warns Ukrainian statehood in jeopardy

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Saturday that Ukraine's statehood is in jeopardy and likened the West's sanctions on Russia to "declaring war." Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a "desperate plea" to U.S. senators to send more planes.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's Zelensky makes 'desperate plea' to U.S. for more planes

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with flight personnel, students and employees of the Aeroflot Aviation School in the suburbs of Moscow on Saturday. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Saturday that Ukraine's statehood is in jeopardy and likened the West's sanctions on Russia to "declaring war."

With the Kremlin's rhetoric growing fiercer and a reprieve from fighting dissolving, Russian troops continued to shell encircled cities and the number of people forced from Ukraine grew to 1.4 million.

By Saturday night, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had intensified their shelling of Mariupol while dropping powerful bombs on residential areas of Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv.

Bereft mothers mourned slain children, wounded soldiers were fitted with tourniquets and doctors worked by the light of their cellphones as bleakness and desperation pervaded. Putin continued to pin the blame for all of it squarely on the Ukrainian leadership and slammed their resistance to the invasion.

"If they continue to do what they are doing, they are calling into question the future of Ukrainian statehood," he said. "And if this happens, it will be entirely on their conscience."

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He also hit out at Western sanctions that have crippled Russia's economy and sent the value of its currency tumbling.

"These sanctions that are being imposed, they are akin to declaring war," he said during a televised meeting with flight attendants from Russian airline Aeroflot. "But thank God, we haven't got there yet."

Zelensky asks U.S. for more planes

Also on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a "desperate plea" to U.S. senators to send more planes.

Zelensky made the request on a call joined by more than 300 people, including U.S. senators, some House lawmakers and aides.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement he will do "all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer."

WATCH | Zelensky addresses U.S. senators: 

Ukrainian president pleads to U.S. senators for planes, drones to fight Russia

6 months ago
Duration 3:58
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a 'desperate plea' for planes Saturday on a call with more than 300 people that included U.S. senators. He's also pushed NATO to impose a no-fly zone over his country.

Schumer told Zelensky the U.S. lawmakers are inspired by him and by the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people, according to another person on the call who was granted anonymity to discuss it.

The U.S. Congress is also working on a $10-billion US package of military and humanitarian aid, and Schumer told Zelensky that lawmakers hope to send it to Ukraine quickly, the person on the call said.

Zelensky told senators he needs planes and drones more than other security tools, according to a senior Senate aide granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

The West has broadly backed Ukraine, offering aid and weapons and slapping Russia with vast sanctions. But the fight itself has been left to Ukrainians, who have expressed a mixture of courageous resolve and despondency.

Zelensky has pleaded for a no-fly zone over his country and lashed out at NATO for refusing to impose one, warning that "all the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you."

Putin warned that a no-fly zone would be considered a hostile act, and NATO has said it has no plans to implement one. Western officials have said a main reason is a desire to not widen the war beyond Ukraine.

Diplomatic efforts continue

Diplomatic efforts continued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Poland to meet with the prime minister and foreign minister, a day after attending a NATO meeting in Brussels in which the alliance pledged to step up support for eastern flank members.

Blinken also spoke on the phone with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday, China's foreign ministry said.

Wang said China opposes any moves that "add fuel to the flames" in Ukraine, while Blinken said the world is watching to see which nations stand up for the principles of freedom and sovereignty.

Wang called for negotiations to resolve the immediate crisis, as well as talks on creating a balanced European security mechanism. Wang said the U.S. and Europe should pay attention to the negative impact of NATO's eastward expansion on Russia's security.

The U.S. State Department said Blinken underscored that the world is acting in unison in response to Russian aggression and ensuring that Moscow will pay a high price.

In Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin at the Kremlin. Bennett, who is observant, wouldn't normally travel on the Sabbath — but the prime minister's spokesperson said Judaism permits breaking Sabbath law when the aim is to preserve human life.

Bennett's office said he spoke twice with Zelensky afterward. Bennett also had a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. Israel maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and Bennett has offered to act as an intermediary in the conflict, but no details of Saturday's meeting in Moscow have emerged.

A third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine will take place Monday, according to Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation. He gave no additional details, including where they would take place.

Previous meetings led to the failed cease-fire agreement to create humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of children, women and older people from besieged cities, where pharmacies have run bare, hundreds of thousands face food and water shortages, and the injured have been succumbing to their wounds.

With files from Reuters