© Reuters. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a news briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 24, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
By Maria Tsvetkova
KYIV (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine’s military on Friday to overthrow their political leaders and negotiate peace, while authorities in Kyiv urged citizens to help defend the capital as Russian forces advanced.
Residents were told by the defence ministry to make petrol bombs to repel the invaders, and on Friday evening witnesses reported hearing artillery rounds and intense gunfire from the western part of the city. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy filmed himself with aides on the streets of the capital, vowing to defend Ukraine’s independence.
Some families cowered in shelters after Kyiv was pounded for a second night by Russian missiles. Others tried desperately to get on packed trains headed west, some of the hundreds of thousands who have left their homes to find safety, according to the United Nations’ aid chief.
After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin unleashed a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine from the north, east and south on Thursday, in an attack that threatened to upend Europe’s post-Cold War order.
“I once again appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine: do not allow neo-Nazis and (Ukrainian radical nationalists) to use your children, wives and elders as human shields,” Putin said at a televised meeting with Russia’s Security Council on Friday. “Take power into your own hands, it will be easier for us to reach agreement.”
Putin has cited the need to “denazify” Ukraine’s leadership as one of his main reasons for invasion, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss the accusations as baseless propaganda.
The White House said the United States would impose sanctions on both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – moves coordinated with the European Union and Britain. However, the steady ramping-up of restrictions has not deterred Russia.
Moscow said it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital – a potential staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war. This could not be confirmed and Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.
The mayor of Kyiv and its 3 million people, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said Russian saboteurs had already entered the city. “The enemy wants to put the capital on its knees and destroy us,” he said.
‘GLORY TO OUR DEFENDERS’
Amid the chaos of war, a picture of what was happening on the ground across the country – the second largest in Europe after Russia itself – was slow to emerge.
Zelenskiy tweeted that there had been heavy fighting with deaths at the entrance to the eastern cities of Chernihiv and Melitopol, as well as at Hostomel.
“Glory to our defenders, both male and female, glory to Ukraine,” he said, flanked by the prime minister and advisors in a video posted to confirm he was in the capital.
Witnesses said they had heard explosions and gunfire near the airport in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, close to Russia’s border, and air raid sirens sounded over Lviv in the west. Ukraine’s military said Russian troops had been stopped with heavy losses near the northeastern city of Konotop.
Britain’s defence ministry said Russian armoured forces had opened a new route of advance towards the capital after failing to take Chernihiv.
Ukraine said more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. Russia did not release casualty figures.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart and condemned reported civilian deaths, including those of Ukrainian children, in attacks around Kyiv, the State Department said.
United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths said hundreds of thousands of people were on the move in Ukraine, adding that “north of a billion dollars” would be needed for relief operations in the next three months.
Ukraine has banned men of fighting age from leaving, and at borders with Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, those seen crossing by Reuters journalists were mostly women and children.
Women cried as they bade goodbye to male loved ones and crossed into Romania.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the decision to sanction Putin personally – something Biden had avoided until now – was intended to send a clear message of allied opposition. The EU earlier agreed to freeze any assets in the bloc belonging to Putin or Lavrov, and Britain followed suit.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the new sanctions reflected the West’s “absolute impotence,” the RIA news agency reported.
Western countries have announced a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports. But they have so far stopped short of forcing it out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments, drawing criticism from Kyiv.
On Friday, European soccer’s governing body moved May’s high-profile Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris, and Formula One cancelled this year’s Russian Grand Prix. The European Broadcasting Union shut Russia out of the widely watched Eurovision Song Contest for 2022.
‘BURN IN HELL’
U.S. officials believe Russia’s initial aim is to “decapitate” Zelenskiy’s government.
Putin says Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their more than thousand-year history.
He says he does not plan a military occupation, only to disarm Ukraine and remove its leaders, but it is not clear how a pro-Russian leader could be installed unless Russian troops control much of the country.
Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and Kyiv hopes to join NATO and the EU – aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
As air raid sirens wailed over Kyiv for a second day, some residents sheltered in underground metro stations.
Windows were blasted out of a 10-storey apartment block near the main airport. A two-metre crater showed where a shell had struck before dawn.
“How can we be living through this in our time? Putin should burn in hell along with his whole family,” said Oxana Gulenko, sweeping broken glass from her room.
Hundreds crowded into a cramped bomb shelter beneath one building after a televised warning of air strikes.
“How can you wage a war against peaceful people?” said Viktoria, 35, as her children aged 5 and 7 slept in their winter coats.
Thousands of people crowded Kyiv’s railway station trying to force their way onto packed trains evacuating people westward to Lviv. When a train arrived, people rushed the doors, some screamed, and guards fired blanks to scare the crowd away.
Maria, 30, had been there since the morning with her child, husband and dog, trying and failing to board the trains.
“It’s dangerous to break through the crowd with a kid,” she said. “The dog is scared. Honestly, we’re exhausted.”