Ukrainians claim to slow Russian advances into major cities as talks begin

Mayors of Kharkiv and Kyiv say Moscow’s forces largely repelled on fourth day of invasion

An armored vehicle outside Mykolaivka, Donetsk region, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, February 27, 2022. (AP Photo)
An armored vehicle outside Mykolaivka, Donetsk region, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, February 27, 2022. (AP Photo)

Battling in the streets and the skies, Ukraine’s beleaguered army attempted to hold off determined Russian advances into the country’s largest cities Sunday as fighting raged across the country for the fourth day.

The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv in the east of the country claimed that Russian forces had successfully been repelled, after fierce battles in the streets.

“Kharkiv is completely ours,” Oleh Sinehubov wrote on social media. “The city is being completely cleansed of the enemy.”

He posted pictures of what he said were “demoralized” Russian troops that had been captured and advised residents to stay inside as enemy soldiers could be hiding among the populace.

Until Sunday, Russia’s troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, while other forces rolled past to press the offensive deeper into Ukraine.

Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks had shown Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. One showed Ukrainian troops firing at the Russians and damaged Russian light utility vehicles abandoned nearby.

Kyiv, the sight of fierce fighting on Saturday, was mostly quiet Sunday after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports.

The rare calm came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said a delegation would meet with Russian officials for talks on the Belarus border.

Ukrainian officials initially rejected the move, saying any talks should take place elsewhere than Belarus, where Russia has placed a large contingent of troops.

But Kyiv said Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko assured Zelensky that “all planes, helicopters, and missiles stationed on Belarus territory will remain on the ground during the travel, negotiations, and return of the Ukrainian delegation.”

North of the city in the suburb of Bucha, near the key airfield of Gostomel, Ukrainian officials claimed a column of Russian vehicles had been destroyed, slowing Moscow’s advance toward Kyiv.

Videos showed burning or charred Russian vehicles there and elsewhere, along with what were purported to be aircraft being shot down, though the more powerful Russian military continued to push ahead in other places around the country.

The images underscored the determined resistance Russian troops face while attempting to enter Ukraine’s bigger cities. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to help defend the capital, Kyiv, and other cities, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.

Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko wrote on Telegram that residential areas of the city were hit by shelling overnight but there were no Russians in the city.

“Our military, law enforcement, and territorial defense continue to detect and neutralize saboteurs,” he wrote. He said 31 people in the capital had been killed, including nine civilians.

Overnight, flames billowed from an oil depot near an airbase in Vasylkiv, a city 37 kilometers (23 miles) south of Kyiv where there has been intense fighting, according to the mayor. Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, prompting the government to warn people to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze as protection from smoke, the president’s office said.

Map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as of February 27, 2022. (Viewsridge/Wikipedia commons)

“The past night was tough — more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure,” Zelensky said.

In the south, Russia maintained pressure on strategic ports, with the apparent aim of seizing control of the country’s coastline. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.

He said the Russian forces also took control of an airbase near Kherson and the Azov Sea city of Henichesk. Ukrainian authorities also reported fighting near Odesa, Mykolaiv, and other areas.

Cutting Ukraine’s access to its seaports would deal a major blow to the country’s economy. It could also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and until now was connected to Russia by a 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge.

Ukrainian military deputy commander Lt. Gen. Yevhen Moisiuk sounded a defiant note in a message aimed at Russian troops.

“Unload your weapons, raise your hands so that our servicemen and civilians can understand that you have heard us. This is your ticket home,” Moisiuk said in a Facebook video.

The number of casualties so far from Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II remained unclear amid the fog of combat.

A member of Ukrainian forces, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (Anonymous mask), patrols downtown Kyiv, on February 27, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

Ukraine’s health minister reported Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties. Russia has not released any casualty information.

Ukraine’s UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, tweeted Saturday that Ukraine appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross “to facilitate repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers.” An accompanying chart claimed 3,500 Russian troops have been killed.

On Sunday, Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas tweeted that Russia had suffered 4,300 killed or wounded. He said 27 aircraft and 26 helicopters had been downed and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles destroyed.

The Russian army on Sunday admitted that there were “killed and injured” soldiers among its troops in Ukraine on the fourth day of its invasion of the country, without specifying how many Russians had died there.

“Russian servicemen are showing courage and heroism while fulfilling combat tasks in the special military operation. Unfortunately, there are killed and injured among our comrades,” Moscow’s army spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on state television.

A Ukrainian Territorial Defence fighter examines a destroyed Russian infantry mobility vehicle GAZ Tigr after the fight in Kharkiv, on February 27, 2022. (Sergey Bobok/AFP)

Ratcheting up tensions with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.

The order means Putin wants Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch and raises the threat that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s response to it could boil over into nuclear warfare.

Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only the alleged statements by NATO members but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.

Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his defense minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a “special regime of combat duty.”

“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Putin said in televised comments.

Members of the South African Russian association together with Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationals demonstrate in Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg, on February 27, 2022, against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Luca Sola/AFP)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN, in reaction to Putin’s decision to put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert: “This is dangerous rhetoric. This is a behavior which is irresponsible.”

The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States typically have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces on alert and prepared for combat at all times, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.

As Russia pushes ahead with its offensive, the West is working to equip the outnumbered Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition while punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.

Several EU officials said that EU countries had individually been sending “significant” shipments of weapons to Ukraine.

Germany has said it is sending 1,400 anti-tank rockets and 500 ground-to-air Stinger missiles. The Netherlands announced the dispatch of 200 Stingers and rifles. Belgium said 2,000 machine guns and 3,800 tonnes of fuel were on the way. The Czech Republic is delivering 30,000 pistols, 7,000 assault rifles, 3,000 machine guns, several sniper rifles, and a million cartridges.

Portugal said it was sending night-vision goggles, grenades, and ammunition. Romania was shipping fuel, bullet-proof vests, helmets, munition, and other military equipment. France and Greece said they were sending unspecified military equipment.

Greek soldiers unload humanitarian aid for Ukraine at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, on February 27, 2022, as Greece’s government decided to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. (Tatiana Bolari/AFP)

The US pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, 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, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion. They also agreed to impose ”restrictive measures” on Russia’s central bank.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, said Sunday that his country was committing 100 billion euros ($112.7 billion) to a special fund for its armed forces, raising its defense spending above 2% of gross domestic product. Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag the investment was needed “to protect our freedom and our democracy.”

Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, 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.

Russia claims its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighborhoods have been hit.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to an international war crimes court in The Hague as possible crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has said he is monitoring the conflict closely.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Sunday that Putin could use “the most unsavory means,” including banned chemical or biological weapons, to defeat Ukraine.

“I urge the Russians not to escalate this conflict, but we do need to be prepared for Russia to seek to use even worse weapons,” Truss told Sky News.

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