KIV, Ukraine – Russian troops stormed the Ukrainian capital on Saturday, and street fighting broke out when city officials urged residents to take refuge. The country’s president has rejected America’s offer of evacuation, insisting it remains. “The battle is here,” he said.
The clashes followed two days of fighting that killed hundreds and destroyed bridges, schools and homes. US officials believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with his own regime.
The attack was Putin’s boldest effort to redraw the map of the world and revive Moscow’s Cold War influence. This has sparked new international efforts to stop the invasion, including direct sanctions against Putin.
When his country faced explosions and gunfire and the fate of Kyiv hung in the balance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a ceasefire and warned in a grim statement that several cities had been attacked.
“We have to stand firm tonight,” he said. “Right now the fate of Ukraine is being decided.”
According to a senior US intelligence official who was directly aware of the conversation, Zelensky was urged to evacuate Kyiv, but he declined the offer. The official quoted the president as saying “the fight is here” and that he needs anti-tank ammunition, but “not a trip”.
Kyiv city authorities urged residents to hide, stay away from windows and take precautions to avoid flying debris and bullets.
The Kremlin accepted Kiev’s offer to hold talks, but it seemed to be an attempt to squeeze concessions from Zelensky, who entered the fight, instead of gesturing toward a diplomatic solution.
The Russian military has continued its offensive, claiming the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol on Friday. However, in the fog of war it was unclear which part of Ukraine was still under Ukrainian control and how much or little was captured by Russian forces.
As fighting continued, the Ukrainian military said it shot down a Russian II-76 transport plane with paratroopers near Vasylkiv, a city 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Kiev, confirmed a senior US intelligence official. How much was on board was unclear. Transport planes can carry up to 125 paratroopers.
A second Russian military transport plane was shot down near Belaya Tserkov, 50 miles (85 kilometers) south of Kyiv, according to two U.S. officials who are directly aware of conditions in Ukraine.
The Russian military has not commented on any of the planes.
The United States and other world powers have imposed tougher sanctions against Russia as the invasion has affected the global economy and energy supplies, threatening to hit even more households. UN officials said millions of people could flee Ukraine. Sports leagues have moved to conquer Russia, and even the popular Eurovision Song Contest has banned her from participating in the May final in Italy.
At the same time, Russia remained rebellious, vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the attack on Ukraine and the immediate withdrawal of troops. A veto was expected, but the United States and its supporters have argued that the effort underscores Moscow’s international isolation. The 11-1 vote, in which China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained, demonstrated significant but incomplete opposition to Russia’s invasion of its smaller, militarily weaker neighbor.
Meanwhile, NATO has decided for the first time to send part of the alliance’s response force to help protect member countries in the east. NATO did not say how many troops would be deployed, but added that it would include ground, naval and air forces.
The second day of the Russian invasion, the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, was dedicated to the Ukrainian capital, where Associated Press reporters heard explosions that began before dawn. Shooting has been reported in several areas.
In the evening near Independence Square, the square in the center of Kiev, which became the center of protests that led to the ouster in 2014 of the president, friendly to the Kremlin, was ousted from power by a big boom. The reason was not immediately known.
Five explosions erupted near a major power plant on the eastern outskirts of Kiev, said Mayor Vitali Klitschko. There was no information about their cause, and no power outages were reported.
It was unclear how many people died in total. Ukrainian officials reported at least 137 deaths on their part during the first full day of fighting and claimed hundreds in Russian. Russian authorities do not report the death toll.
UN officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and air strikes, and said an estimated 100,000 people had fled their homes. According to their estimates, in the event of escalation of fighting up to 4 million could flee.
Zelensky tweeted that he and US President Joe Biden had spoken on the phone and discussed “tightening sanctions, concrete defense assistance and an anti-war coalition.”
Late Friday, Biden signed a memorandum authorizing additional security aid to Ukraine of up to $ 350 million, bringing the total amount of aid approved for Ukraine to $ 1 billion last year. It was not immediately clear how quickly help would arrive.
Zelensky’s whereabouts were kept secret after Zelensky said in talks with European leaders on Thursday that he was Russia’s No. 1 target – and that they could no longer see him alive. His office later released a video in which he stands with senior aides near the president’s office and says he and other government officials will remain in the capital.
Earlier, Zelensky offered to negotiate on Putin’s key demand: to declare itself neutral and give up its ambitions to join NATO. The Kremlin said that Kyiv first agreed to talks in Minsk, then said it preferred Warsaw, and later stopped talking. Later, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the prospects for talks in Kiev will be discussed on Saturday.
The United States and Western allies have been waiting for the attack for weeks, and Putin has denied that it is being worked out for as long. He claimed that the West had left him no choice but to refuse to negotiate on Russia’s security requirements.
In a window of increasingly isolated views on Ukraine and its leadership, he called on the Ukrainian military to surrender, saying: the Ukrainian people. “
Playing on Russian nostalgia for the heroism of World War II, the Kremlin equates members of Ukrainian right-wing groups with neo-Nazis. Zelensky, who is Jewish, vehemently rejects these allegations.
Putin does not disclose his final plans for Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted: “We want the Ukrainian people to determine their own destiny.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia recognized Zelensky as president, but did not say how long Russia’s military operation could last.
Ukrainians suddenly adapted to life under fire after Russian troops invaded the country from three sides when they grouped about 150,000 troops nearby.
Residents of Kiev apartment building woke up from screams, smoke and flying dust. What the mayor called Russian shelling tore off part of the building and caught fire.
“What are you doing? What is it?” resident Yuri Zhiganov asked Russian forces. Like countless other Ukrainians, he grabbed everything he could, took his mother and fled, followed by an alarm.
Elsewhere in Kiev near the underpass lay the body of a dead soldier. Fragments of the downed plane were smoking among the brick houses of the residential area. Black plastic was thrown at the body parts found next to them. People climbed out of bomb shelters, basements and underpasses to meet another day of upheaval.
“We are all scared and worried. We don’t know what to do in a few days, ”said Lucy Vashaka, a 20-year-old employee of a small hotel in Kyiv.
At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said the United States believes the offensive, including the attack on Kiev, has been slower than Moscow had planned, noting that Ukrainian forces are fighting back. But he also said the military campaign is at an early stage and circumstances could change quickly.
The Biden administration said Friday it would freeze the assets of Putin and Lavrov following the European Union and Britain, which have imposed direct sanctions on Russia’s top leadership.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharov called the sanctions against Putin and Lavrov “an example and demonstration of complete helplessness of the West.”