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'We will fight for as long as needed,' Zelensky says

Ukrainian forces slow Russian advance in fierce fight for Kyiv

Massive explosions rock Ukrainian capital; Western nations rush weapons to defenders, announce new sanctions against Russia; over 150,000 flee to safety in neighboring countries

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)
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)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian defense forces put up fierce resistance Saturday, slowing the advance of the larger and better-armed Russian military closing in on Kyiv, the capital.

European nations and the US rushed assistance to Ukraine, including more ammunition and weapons, and announced another round of powerful sanctions aimed at further isolating Russia from the global financial system.

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 neighboring countries, and the United Nations warned the number could grow to 4 million if fighting escalates.

“We will fight for as long as needed to liberate our country,” President Volodymyr Zelensky promised.

To aid Ukraine’s ability to hold out, the US pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine on Saturday, including anti-tank weapons, body armor 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 US, European Union, and 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. They also agreed to impose ”restrictive measures” on Russia’s central bank.

The measures were announced jointly as part of a new round of financial sanctions meant to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion.

It was unclear how much territory Russian forces have seized. 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 US defense official said more than half of the Russian combat power that was massed along Ukraine’s borders had entered the country and Moscow has had to commit more fuel supply and other support units inside Ukraine than originally anticipated. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments, did not provide further details.

Ukrainian tanks move on a road before an attack in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP)

Even as Zelensky called on his countrymen to join the fight, it was impossible to know how effective Ukraine has been in slowing the Russian advance. A curfew in Kyiv set to last through Monday morning forced everyone inside, though 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 US said the bulk of Russian forces were 19 miles (30 kilometers) from the city’s center as of Saturday afternoon.

Russia claims its assault on Ukraine is 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.

A Ukrainian refugee girl collects a toy from a pile of donated clothes at the Medyka border crossing, in Medyka, Poland, February 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

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

In Kyiv, a missile struck a high-rise apartment building in the 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.

Two massive explosions outside the city lit up the night sky in the predawn hours of Sunday morning. At least one of the explosions appeared to originate near an airport southwest of Kyiv, CNN reported.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, said troops in Kyiv were fighting Russian “sabotage groups.” Ukraine says some 200 Russian soldiers have been captured and 3,500 have been killed.

Markarova said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to The Hague for consideration as possible war crimes.

People run for cover during shelling on the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, February 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Zelensky reiterated his openness to talks with Russia in a video message Saturday, saying he welcomed an offer from the leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan to organize diplomatic efforts, which so far have faltered.

The Kremlin gave a terse confirmation of a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev but gave no hint of restarting talks. A day earlier, Zelensky offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: abandoning ambitions of joining NATO.

Putin sent troops into Ukraine after he spent weeks denying that’s what he intended, 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 body of a soldier is coated in snow as a man takes photos of a destroyed Russian military multiple rocket launcher vehicle on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, February 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans for Ukraine, 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.

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 water reservoir that serves Kyiv, and Ukraine said a Russian military convoy was destroyed near the city early Saturday. Footage 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 uniformed 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 coastline, which stretches from near the Black Sea port of Odessa in the west to beyond the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.

“I don’t care anymore who wins and who doesn’t,” Ruzanna Zubenko said as her large family was forced from their home outside Mariupol after it was badly damaged by shelling on Friday. “The only important thing is for our children to be able to grow up smiling and not crying.”

If the Russian troops succeed, Ukraine would 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 shoreline amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.

Fighting also raged in two territories in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Authorities in the city of Donetsk said hot water supplies to the city of about 900,000 were suspended because of damage to the system by Ukrainian shelling.

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. Zelensky issued a defiant video recorded on a downtown Kyiv street early Saturday, saying he remained in the city.

“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 conflict has driven thousands of Ukrainians from their homes in search of safety. UN officials said more than 150,000 Ukrainians had left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighboring nations and estimated 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates.
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.

Hungary and Poland both opened their borders to Ukrainians. At Poland’s Medyka crossing, some said they had walked for 15 miles (35 kilometers) 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,” said Iryna Wiklenko as she waited on the Polish side for her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law to make it across.

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 Friday night in basements, underground parking garages and subway stations, and prepared to do the same on Saturday.

Shelves wore thin at some Kyiv grocery stores and pharmacies, and some worried how long stockpiles of food and medicine might last.

A Ukrainian soldier walks past the debris of a burning military truck, on a street in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The US and its allies have beefed up troops on NATO’s eastern flank but so far have ruled out deploying troops to fight Russia. Instead, the US, the European Union and other countries have slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, freezing the assets of Russian businesses and individuals including Putin and his foreign minister.

The European Union and US announce severe new sanctions against Russia on Saturday.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, said the bloc has decided to remove some Russian banks from the SWIFT global banking system to “stop them from operating worldwide.”

The EU will also “paralyze the assets of Russia’s central bank” to freeze its transactions, von der Leyen said.

“The Russian army is committing barbaric actions during its invasion of Ukraine. It is bombing and launching missiles killing innocent people,” she said.

“As Russian forces unleash their assault on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, we are resolved to continue imposing massive costs on Russia, costs that will further isolate Russia from the international financial system and our economies,” she says.

The White House said in a statement that the Western countries will also prevent wealthy Russians from acquiring citizenship from other countries to bar them from international financial systems.

A senior Russian official on Saturday shrugged off sanctions as a reflection of Western “political impotence.”

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.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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