Ukrainian and Russian delegations meet as Putin continues to flex nuclear muscles

Russian delegation led by Putin’s culture adviser; Ukraine expected to demand ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops in first face-to-face talks since war began

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, on February 1, 2022. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, on February 1, 2022. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian and Ukrainian delegations met for talks Monday amid high hopes but low expectations for any diplomatic breakthrough, after Moscow unleashed the biggest land war in Europe since World War II but met unexpectedly stiff resistance.

As outgunned but determined Ukrainian forces slowed the Russian advance and sanctions crippled the Russian economy, the military confirmed that its nuclear forces were on high alert, following President Vladimir Putin’s order. While that raised the unimaginable specter of nuclear conflict, it was unclear what practical effect it had.

A tense calm reigned Monday in Kyiv, where people lined up to buy food and water after two nights trapped indoors by a curfew. Explosions and gunfire were heard in embattled cities in eastern Ukraine, and terrified families huddled overnight in shelters, basements or corridors.

“I sit and pray for these negotiations to end successfully, so that they reach an agreement to end the slaughter, and so there is no more war,” said Alexandra Mikhailova, weeping as she clutched her cat in a makeshift shelter in the strategic southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Around her, parents sought to console children and keep them warm.

Exact death tolls are unclear, but the UN human rights chief said 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in five days of fighting — warning that figure was likely a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead. More than 500,000 people have fled the country since the invasion, another UN official said Monday — among millions who have left their homes.

Still, a tiny sliver of hope emerged as the first face-to-face talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials since the war began opened Monday. The delegations met at a long table with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.

A woman holding the Ukrainian flag tilts her face towards the sun at a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine outside of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said it would demand an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops.

But while Ukraine sent its defense minister and other top officials, the Russian delegation was led by Putin’s adviser on culture — an unlikely envoy for ending the war and a sign of how Moscow views the talks.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore up the tanking ruble and the US and European countries upped weapons shipments to Ukraine. While they hope to curb Putin’s aggression, the measures also risked pushing an increasingly cornered Putin closer to the edge — and inflicted pain on ordinary Russians.

In Moscow, people lined up to withdraw cash as the sanctions threatened their livelihoods and savings.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Putin is seeking in the talks, or from the war itself, though Western officials believe he wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

The increasingly erratic Russian leader made a clear link between ever-tightening sanctions and his decision Sunday to raise Russia’s nuclear posture. He also pointed at “aggressive statements” by NATO, a reference to his long-held stance that the US-led alliance is an existential threat to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to present the highest state awards in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 2, 2022. (Sergei Karpukhin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

On Monday, the Defense Ministry said extra personnel were deployed to Russian nuclear forces, and that the high alert status applies to all their components: the forces that oversee land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the fleet of nuclear-capable strategic bombers.

It was not immediately clear whether the Kremlin announcement means any nuclear-armed aircraft could already be in the air around Ukraine. But the move is a clear escalation.

US and British officials played down Putin’s nuclear threat as posturing. But for many, they stirred up memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and concerns that the West could be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia.

Putin also stepped up his rhetoric Monday, denouncing the US and its allies as an “empire of lies.” He described Western allies as US “satellites which humbly fawn on it, kowtow to it, copy its conduct and joyfully accept the rules.”

In another possible escalation, neighboring Belarus could send troops to help Russia as soon as Monday, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of current US intelligence assessments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, on February 19, 2022, shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an airfield during military drills. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

US officials say they believe the invasion has been more difficult, and slower, than the Kremlin envisioned, though that could change as Moscow adapts. The British Defense Ministry said Monday that the bulk of Putin’s forces are about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Kyiv, their advance having been slowed by Ukrainian forces.

Battles also broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the country’s south came under assault from Russian forces. Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov, is “hanging on,” said Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovich. An oil depot was reportedly bombed in the eastern city of Sumy. Ukrainian protesters demonstrated against encroaching Russian troops in the port of Berdyansk.

In addition to sanctions, the US and Germany announced they will send Stinger missiles to Ukraine among other military supplies. The European Union — founded to ensure peace on the continent after World War II — is supplying lethal aid for the first time, including anti-tank weapons and ammunition. At least one Western country is studying a request from Ukraine to provide fighter jets, a European official said. She spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not yet public.

Ukrainian servicemen move US-made FIM-92 Stinger missiles and other military assistance shipped from Lithuania to Boryspil Airport in Kyiv, on February 13, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

EU defense ministers were to meet Monday to discuss how to get the pledged weaponry into Ukraine. A trainload of Czech equipment arrived Sunday and another was en route Monday, though blocking off such shipments will clearly be a key Russian priority. It remains to be seen how much the weaponry will help Ukraine fend off Russia’s vastly greater arsenal.

Ukrainian authorities have been handing out weapons to anyone willing to defend the city. Ukraine is also releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight, and training people to make firebombs.

In Mariupol, where Ukrainians were trying to fend off an attack, a medical team at a city hospital desperately tried to revive a 6-year-old girl in unicorn pajamas who was mortally wounded in Russian shelling.

People lie on the floor in the improvised bomb shelter in a sports center, which can accommodate up to 2000 people, in Mariupol, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

During the rescue attempt, a doctor in blue medical scrubs, pumping oxygen into the girl, looked directly into the Associated Press video camera capturing the scene.

“Show this to Putin,” he said angrily. “The eyes of this child, and crying doctors.”

Their resuscitation efforts failed, and the girl lay dead on a gurney, covered by her blood-splattered jacket.

Nearly 900 kilometers (560 miles) away, Faina Bystritska was under threat in the city of Chernihiv.

“I wish I had never lived to see this,” said Bystritska, an 87-year-old Jewish survivor of World War II.

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