Ukraine crisis: Russian troops advance on Kyiv as Ukrainian president pleads for help
Kyiv, Feb. 25 (AP): Russian troops bore down on Ukraine’s capital on Friday, with gunfire and explosions resonating ever closer to the government quarter, in an invasion of a democratic country that has fuelled fears of wider war in Europe and triggered worldwide efforts to make Russia stop.
With reports of hundreds of casualties from the warfare including shelling that sliced through a Kyiv apartment building and pummelled bridges and schools, there also were growing signs that Vladimir Putin’s Russia may be seeking to overthrow Ukraine’s government.
It would be his boldest effort yet to redraw the world map and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
In the fog of war, it was unclear how much of Ukraine remains under Ukrainian control and how much or little Russian forces have seized. The Kremlin accepted Kyiv’s offer to hold talks, but it appeared to be an effort to squeeze concessions out of Ukraine’s embattled president instead of a gesture toward a diplomatic solution.
The U.S. and other global powers slapped ever-tougher sanctions on Russia as the invasion reverberated through the world’s economy and energy supplies, threatening to further hit ordinary households.
U.N. officials said millions could flee Ukraine. Sports leagues moved to punish Russia on global playing fields. And U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders held an urgent meeting to discuss how far they can challenge Putin without engaging Russian forces in direct war.
Day 2 of Russia’s invasion focused on the Ukrainian capital, where Associated Press reporters heard explosions starting before dawn and gunfire was reported in several areas.
Russia’s military said it had seized a strategic airport outside Kyiv, allowing it to quickly build up forces to take the capital. It claimed to have already cut the city off from the west, the direction taken by many of those escaping the invasion, leading to lines of cars snaking toward the Polish border.
Intense gunfire broke out on a bridge across the Dneiper River dividing eastern and western Kyiv, with about 200 Ukrainian forces taking defensive positions and sheltering behind their armoured vehicles and under the bridge. Another key bridge leading to the capital was blown away, with smoke rising from it.
Ukrainian officials reported at least 137 deaths on their side and claimed hundreds on the Russian side. Russian authorities released no casualty figures, and it was not possible to verify the tolls.
U.N. officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and airstrikes, and said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes, estimating up to 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates.
When bombs fall on Kyiv, it happens in Europe, not just in Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. When missiles kill our people, they kill all Europeans.
A U.S. defense official said a Russian amphibious assault was underway, and thousands of Russian naval infantry were moving ashore from the Sea of Azov, west of Mariupol.
The official said Ukrainian air defenses have been degraded but are still operating, and that about a third of the combat power that Russia had massed around Ukraine is now in the country. All told, the official estimated Russia had fired more than 200 missiles into Ukraine, with some hitting residential areas.
Britain’s defense ministry said the bulk of Russian forces advancing on Kyiv were still more than 50 kilometer (31 miles) from the city center, with sporadic clashes in the capital’s northern suburbs.
Zelenskyy pleaded with Western powers to act faster to cut off Russia’s economy and provide Ukraine military help. His whereabouts were kept secret, after he told European leaders in a call on Thursday night that he was Russia’s No. 1 target and that they might not see him again alive.
Italian Premier Mario Draghi told lawmakers of Zelenskyy’s dramatic remarks to the European Council: He’s hidden somewhere in Kyiv. He said that he doesn’t have much time, that Ukraine doesn’t have much time.”
Zelenskyy offered to negotiate on a key Putin demand: that Ukraine declare itself neutral and abandon its ambition of joining NATO. The Kremlin responded that Russia was ready to send a delegation to Belarus to discuss that. But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said Ukrainian officials were unwilling to travel to the Belarusian capital and would prefer Warsaw, then halted further communication.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested it was too late, saying Zelenskyy should have agreed to talks earlier on.