Ukraine admitted for the first time that it had lost access to the Sea of Azov, a potentially significant setback that underscores the extent of Russian military gains in the south-east of the country.

The admission came as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called for comprehensive peace talks with Moscow, warning it would take Russia “several generations” to recover from its losses in the war.

“The time has come to meet. The time has come to talk,” Zelensky said in a video address to the nation. “It is time to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s losses will be so great that it will take you several generation to recover.”

With Russia’s war in Ukraine in its fourth week, its offensive appears to have stalled on several fronts, slowed by logistical challenges, tactical missteps and intense Ukrainian resistance.

Russia has been forced to “change its operational approach and is now pursuing a strategy of attrition”, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.

“This is likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower, resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and intensify the humanitarian crisis,” the MoD said.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said he expects Russia will try to
resupply and bring in additional troops in the coming days.

“We have not seen any evidence that they’re moving large numbers of
forces recently but because of the fact that they’ve stalled on a
number of fronts there, it makes sense that [Valdimir Putin] would want to increase his capabilities going forward,” Austin said, speaking after meeting
Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov.

More than 3mn people have fled Ukraine, triggering Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. António Guterres, UN secretary-general, said the war was “disrupting supply chains and causing the prices of fuel, food and transport to skyrocket”.

“We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system,” he said.

One of the main objectives of Russia’s offensive is Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov which is encircled and has been subjected to relentless bombardment by Russian troops. Thousands of people in the city — which had a prewar population of 460,000 — have been forced to live in shelters, deprived of electricity, heat and communication services and with food and water running out.

Earlier this week Russia’s air force bombed Mariupol’s main municipal theatre, which had been used as a shelter by hundreds of civilians. Authorities said more than 130 people had been rescued from the rubble but hundreds were unaccounted for and could still be in the building.

Capturing Mariupol would give the Russians control of the whole northern coast of the Sea of Azov, cutting Ukraine off from a crucial conduit to the Black Sea and enabling Moscow to form a land corridor to Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The Ukrainian general staff said on Friday evening that Russian forces had “partially succeeded in the Donetsk theatre, temporarily depriving Ukraine of access to the Sea of Azov”.

“Our task is not to allow them to gain a foothold on these frontiers, because then it will be very difficult to drive them out,” said Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Reforms and a former adviser to the Ukrainian defence minister.

“The minimum task for the Russian side . . . is capturing a land corridor to Crimea and control of the water supply system for the peninsula, together with trying to destabilise the situation in Kyiv,” he added.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Saturday it had used its Kinzhal hypersonic missile to hit a target in Ukraine for the first time, claiming it struck a munitions storage facility in the west of the country on Friday.

“The Kinzhal aircraft missile system with hypersonic ballistic missiles destroyed a large underground storage facility for missiles and aircraft ammunition of Ukrainian troops in Deliatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the Kinzhal is a nuclear-capable missile that is launched from the air, and is one of the ‘next generation’ weapons that Putin unveiled in 2018.

“Russia’s designation of the Kinzhal as a ‘hypersonic’ missile is somewhat misleading, as nearly all ballistic missiles reach hypersonic speeds . . . at some point during their flight,” the CSIS said.

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Sofia

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