By YURAS KARMANAU, JIM HEINTZ, VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and ZEKE MILLER, KYIV, Ukraine Feb 27, (AP) — Ukrainian forces put up fierce resistance to slow the advance of the larger and more powerful Russian military closing in on the capital, as the U.S. and EU rushed ammunition and weapons to Kyiv and announced powerful new financial sanctions aimed at further isolating Moscow.
Terrified men, women and children sought safety inside and underground, and the government maintained a 39-hour curfew to keep people off the streets. More than 150,000 Ukrainians fled for Poland, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, and the United Nations warned the number could grow to 4 million if fighting escalates. Huge explosions lit up the predawn sky south of Kyiv early Sunday.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said one of the blasts was near the Zhuliany airport, and the mayor of Vasylkiv, about 25 miles (40 kilometres) south of the capital, said an oil depot was hit. Zelenskyy’s office also said Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. The government warned that smoke from the huge explosion could cause an “environmental catastrophe” and advised people to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze.
“We will fight for as long as needed to liberate our country,” Zelenskyy vowed.
President Vladimir Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
To aid Ukraine’s ability to hold out, the U.S. pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armour and small arms. Germany said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the besieged country and that it would close its airspace to Russian planes.
The U.S., European Union and the United Kingdom agreed to block “selected” Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion. They also agreed to impose ”restrictive measures” on Russia’s central bank.
It was unclear how much territory Russian forces had seized or to what extent their advance had been stalled. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said “the speed of the Russian advance has temporarily slowed likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties and strong Ukrainian resistance.”
A senior U.S. defence official said more than half the Russian combat power that was massed along Ukraine’s borders has entered the country and Moscow has had to commit more fuel supply and other support units inside Ukraine than originally anticipated. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. assessments.
The curfew forcing everyone in Kyiv inside was set to last through Monday morning. The relative quiet of the capital was sporadically broken by gunfire.
Fighting on the city’s outskirts suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces. Small groups of Russian troops were reported inside Kyiv, but Britain and the U.S. said the bulk of the forces were 19 miles (30 kilometers) from the city’s center as of the afternoon.
Russia claims its assault on Ukraine from the north, east and south is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighbourhoods have been hit.
Ukraine’s health minister reported Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded during Europe’s largest land war since World War II. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties.
A missile struck a high-rise apartment building in Kyiv’s southwestern outskirts near one of the city’s two passenger airports, leaving a jagged hole of ravaged apartments over several floors. A rescue worker said six civilians were injured.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, said troops in Kyiv were fighting Russian “sabotage groups.” Ukraine says some 200 Russian soldiers have been captured and thousands killed.
Markarova said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to The Hague as possible crimes against humanity.
Zelenskyy reiterated his openness to talks with Russia in a video message, saying he welcomed an offer from Turkey and Azerbaijan to organize diplomatic efforts, which so far have faltered.
The Kremlin confirmed a phone call between Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev but gave no hint of restarting talks. A day earlier, Zelenskyy offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: abandoning ambitions of joining NATO.
Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, all the while building up a force of almost 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders. He claims the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.
The effort was already coming at great cost to Ukraine, and apparently to Russian forces as well.
Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn Saturday as it headed for the dam of the sprawling reservoir that serves Kyiv. The government also said a Russian convoy was destroyed. Video images showed soldiers inspecting burned-out vehicles after Ukraine’s 101st brigade reported destroying a column of two light vehicles, two trucks and a tank. The claim could not be verified.
Highways into Kyiv from the east were dotted with checkpoints manned by Ukrainian troops and young men in civilian clothes carrying automatic rifles. Low-flying planes patrolled the skies, though it was unclear if they were Russian or Ukrainian.
In addition to Kyiv, the Russian assault appeared to focus on Ukraine’s economically vital coastal areas, from near the Black Sea port of Odesa in the west to beyond the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.
Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol guarded bridges and blocked people from the shoreline amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.
“I don’t care anymore who wins and who doesn’t,” said Ruzanna Zubenko, whose large family was forced from their home outside Mariupol after it was badly damaged by shelling. “The only important thing is for our children to be able to grow up smiling and not crying.”
Fighting also raged in two eastern territories controlled by pro-Russia separatists. Authorities in Donetsk said hot water supplies to the city of about 900,000 were suspended because of damage to the system by Ukrainian shelling.
The U.S. government urged Zelenskyy early Saturday to evacuate Kyiv but he turned down the offer, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. Zelenskyy issued a defiant video recorded on a downtown street, saying he remained in the city.
“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” he said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”
Hungary and Poland both opened their borders to Ukrainians.
Refugees arriving in the Hungarian border town of Zahony said men between the ages of 18 and 60 were not being allowed to leave Ukraine.
“My son was not allowed to come. My heart is so sore, I’m shaking,” said Vilma Sugar, 68.
At Poland’s Medyka crossing, some said they had walked for 15 miles (35 kilometres) to reach the border.
“They didn’t have food, no tea, they were standing in the middle of a field, on the road, kids were freezing,” Iryna Wiklenko said as she waited on the Polish side for her grandchildren and daughter-in-law to make it across.
Officials in Kyiv urged residents to stay away from windows to avoid debris or bullets. Many hunkered down in basements, underground garages and subway stations, where families, some with pets, camped out on hard floors.
Shelves were sparsely stocked at grocery stores and pharmacies, and people worried how long food and medicine supplies might last.
The U.S. and its allies have beefed up forces on NATO’s eastern flank but so far have ruled out deploying troops to fight Russia. Instead, the U.S., the European Union and other countries have slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, freezing the assets of businesses and individuals including Putin and his foreign minister.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, warned that Moscow could react by opting out of the last remaining nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties.
“There is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations,” Medvedev said. “We may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.”