As Russians assail Kyiv, Zelensky says Ukraine has ‘derailed their plan’

US defense official says Moscow’s troops increasingly frustrated by ‘very determined resistance’; Ukrainian president urges Russians to pressure Putin to stop invasion

Ukraine's biggest national flag flies in Kyiv, on February 26, 2022 (Genya Savilov/AFP)
Ukraine's biggest national flag flies in Kyiv, on February 26, 2022 (Genya Savilov/AFP)

Russian troops closed in on Ukraine’s capital Saturday after a night of explosions and street fighting sent Kyiv residents seeking shelter or fleeing the city. The country’s leader claimed Ukraine’s forces had repulsed the assault and vowed to keep up the struggle.

“The real fighting for Kyiv is ongoing,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message, accusing Russia of hitting infrastructure and civilian targets.

“We will win,” he said.

Zelensky urged Russians to pressure Russian leader Vladimir Putin to stop the invasion. He accused Moscow of seeking to overthrow him and establish a puppet state in Ukraine.

“We’ve derailed their plan,” the 44-year-old leader said, stressing that the Ukrainian army was in control of the capital Kyiv and main cities around it.

A US defense official told Reuters there was growing frustration among the Russians “that they have not made the progress that they have wanted to make, particularly in the north.”

The unnamed official added: “They have been frustrated by what they have seen is a very determined resistance. It has slowed them down.”

Zelensky said Russians have deployed “missiles, fighters, drones, artillery, armored vehicles, saboteurs, and airborne forces” against Ukraine and have hit “residential areas.”

Zelensky said Ukrainians had been fighting against Russians troops in a number of cities including the southern city of Odessa, the northeastern city of Kharkiv and the capital Kyiv. The western city of Lviv and other cities in western and central Ukraine have been targeted with air strikes, he said.

Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after fighting with Russian troops in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of February 26, 2022 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Ukraine, Zelensky said, has “already” earned the right to join the European Union and urged the EU leaders to make that decision.

“This will be key evidence of our country’s support,” he said.

Zelensky also urged Europe to back severing Russia from the SWIFT banking system to punish Moscow for invading his country.

“There is already almost full support from the EU countries to disconnect Russia from SWIFT. I hope that Germany and Hungary will have the courage to support this decision,” Zelensky said. Hungary has since indicated it would back the move, though Germany’s position is unclear.

Central Kyiv appeared quiet Saturday, and skirmishes reported on the edge of the city suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces. Britain’s defense ministry said Saturday that the bulk of Russian forces were 19 miles (30 kilometers) from the middle of the city.

Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko extended a curfew he imposed two days ago to run from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. He said “all civilians on the street during the curfew will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses his nation in a speech on Saturday, February 26, 2022, saying troops were successfully thwarting Russian attacks. (Screenshot/Twitter)

Russia claims its assault on Ukraine was aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighborhoods have been hit since the invasion began Thursday with air and missile strikes and Russian troops entering Ukraine from the north, east and south.

Ukraine’s health minister reported Saturday that 198 people, including three children, have been killed and more than 1,000 others have been wounded during Europe’s largest ground offensive since World War II. It was unclear whether the figure included both military and civilian casualties.

In Kyiv, a missile struck a high-rise apartment building in the southwestern outskirts near one of Kyiv’s two passenger airports, leaving a jagged hole of ravaged apartments over several floors. A rescue worker said six civilians were injured.

The conflict has driven thousands of Ukrainians from their homes in search of safety. UN. officials said more than 120,000 Ukrainians have left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighboring nations.

Ukrainian service members are seen at the site of fighting with Russian troops in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of February 26, 2022 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

It was unclear in the fog of war how much of Ukraine was still under Ukrainian control and how much Russian forces have seized. Western governments claimed stiff Ukrainian resistance had slowed the Russian advance, and Russia does not yet control Ukraine’s skies.

Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn Saturday as it headed for the dam of the sprawling water reservoir that serves Kyiv, and Ukraine said a Russian military convoy was destroyed near the city early Saturday.

In addition to Kyiv, the Russian assault appeared to focus on Ukraine’s coastline, stretching from the Black Sea port of Odesa, in the west near the border with Romania, to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.

If the Russian troops succeed, Ukraine will be cut off from access to all of its sea ports, which are vital for its economy. In Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers guarded bridges and blocked people from the seashore area amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.

Ukrainian service members collect unexploded shells after fighting with a Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, in the morning of February 26, 2022, according to Ukrainian service personnel at the scene. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

The Russian military said Friday that they claimed control of Melitopol, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) inland from the Sea of Azov.

Western officials believe Putin is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own. The invasion represented Putin’s boldest effort yet to redraw the map of Europe and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

Zelensky issued a defiant video recorded on a downtown Kyiv street early Saturday, saying he remained in the city and that claims the Ukrainian military would put down arms were false.

“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” the Ukrainian president 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.”

The US government urged Zelensky early Saturday to evacuate Kyiv but he turned down the offer, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, quoted the president as saying he needed anti-tank ammunition, “not a ride.”

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been on the move, seeking safety in the west of the country or beyond., The UN estimates that up to 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates. Refugees arriving in the Hungarian border town of Zahony said men between 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, I can’t calm down, they did not let him come,” said Vilma Sugar, 68.

City officials in Kyiv urged residents to seek shelter, to stay away from windows and to take precautions to avoid flying debris or bullets. Many spent the night in basements, underground parking garages and subway stations.

A Ukrainian service member patrols the empty road on the west side of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, in the morning of February 26, 2022. (Daniel Leal/AFP)

“We’re all scared and worried. We don’t know what to do then, what’s going to happen in a few days,” said Lucy Vashaka, 20, a worker at a small Kyiv hotel.

The US and other NATO allies have sent weapons and other aid to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. NATO member nations also have beefed up their troops in allied countries in Eastern Europe, but ruled out deploying troops to fight Russia.

Instead, the US, the EU and other countries have slapped wide-raging sanctions on Russia, freezing the assets of Russian businesses and individuals, including Putin and his foreign minister.

French maritime officials seized a Russian-flagged cargo ship carrying cars for potential sanctions breaches and took it to a port for investigation.

Russia remained unbowed, vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding that it stop attacking Ukraine and withdraw troops immediately. The 11-1 vote, with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining, showed significant opposition to Russia’s invasion of its smaller, militarily weaker neighbor.

A senior Russian official on Saturday shrugged off the wide-ranging sanctions that the US, the EU and other allies slapped on Russia as a reflection of Western “political impotence.”

Ukrainian service members look for unexploded shells after fighting with a Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of February 26, 2022, according to Ukrainian service personnel at the scene. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, warned that Moscow could react to the sanctions by opting out of the last remaining nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties with nations in the West.

“There is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations,” Medvedev said. “We may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.”

Putin has not disclosed his ultimate plans for Ukraine or said how long the Russian military operation could last. He justified the invasion by saying the West left him with no other choice by refusing to negotiate Russia’s security demands.

Zelensky offered Friday to negotiate a key one: that Ukraine declare itself neutral and abandon its ambition of joining NATO.

The Kremlin said it accepted Kyiv’s offer to hold talks, but it appeared to be an effort to squeeze concessions out of the embattled Zelensky instead of a gesture toward a diplomatic solution.

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