(KYIV, Ukraine) — Russian troops stormed toward Ukraine’s capital Saturday, and street fighting broke out as city officials urged residents to take shelter. The country’s president refused an American offer to evacuate, insisting that he would stay. “The fight is here,” he said.
The soldiers’ advance was still not clear as the dawn broke in Kyiv. Officials from Ukraine claimed that they were able to repel some attacks, although fighting continued near the capital. According to reports, skirmishes were reported at the border of the capital. These indicated that Russian small units were looking for ways to penetrate Ukrainian defenses and open the way for the main force.
A country that was still clinging onto independence in the face a wide Russian invasion, threatened by a sweeping Russian offensive and the destruction of the post-Cold War international order. The rapid movements of the troops continued to imperil the country.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered renewed assurance Saturday that the country’s military would stand up to the Russian invasion. He said that he was not leaving the city in a recorded video taken on a downtown street and denied that the Ukrainian army would surrender to Russia.
“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” he 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.”
Street fighting followed the clashes that destroyed bridges, schools, apartment buildings and caused hundreds of deaths. Mykhailo Polyak, Zelenskyy advisor to Zelenskyy, said that Ukrainian forces had retaken control of the situation after the attempted infiltration by small Russian units into Kyiv.
U.S. officials believe Russian President Vladimir 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. This invasion sparked new international efforts, which included direct sanctions against Putin.
A senior American intelligence official who was directly aware of the exchange said that Zelenskyy had been urged to leave Kyiv early Saturday by the U.S. government, but declined the request. The official quoted the president as saying that “the fight is here” and that he needed anti-tank ammunition but “not a ride.”
Because he wasn’t authorized to talk to media, the official spoke under condition of anonymity.
Kyiv city officials urged citizens to shelter from the elements, stay out of windows, and take preventative measures to keep away bullets and flying debris.
The Kremlin accepted Kyiv’s offer to hold talks, but it appeared to be an effort to squeeze concessions out of the embattled Zelenskyy instead of a gesture toward a diplomatic solution.
Friday saw the Russian military claim Melitopol, a city in south Ukraine. In the fog of war, however, it wasn’t clear how much Ukraine was under Ukrainian control or how many Russian troops had seized.
As fighting persisted, Ukraine’s military reported shooting down an II-76 Russian transport plane carrying paratroopers near Vasylkiv, a city 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Kyiv, an account confirmed by a senior American intelligence official. Unknown how many people were aboard. Transport planes can hold up to 125 paratroopers.
According to two American officials who were privy to the conditions in Ukraine, a second Russian military transport aircraft was downed near Bila Terkva (50 miles/85 km south of Kyiv).
Russian military didn’t comment on the planes.
The U.S. and other global powers slapped ever-tougher sanctions on Russia as the invasion reverberated through the world’s economy and energy supplies. U.N. officials stated that thousands could flee Ukraine. Russia is being targeted by several sports leagues, as well as the Eurovision Song Contest which has been banned from Italy’s May finals.
Russia refused to bow down, and vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution requesting that Ukraine cease attacking Ukraine, withdraw its troops, and all this took place in spite of everything. The veto was expected, but the U.S. and its supporters argued that the effort would highlight Moscow’s international isolation. 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.
NATO, meanwhile, decided to send parts of the alliance’s response force to help protect member nations in the east for the first time. NATO didn’t specify how many troops would deploy, but said that they would use land and sea power.
Unknown was the number of Europeans who had been killed in the biggest ground war since World War II.
Ukrainian officials said that there were at most 137 casualties on their side, while hundreds of Russian soldiers died in the conflict. Russian authorities did not provide any figures on casualties.
U.N. officials claimed that there were 25 civilian casualties, mostly due to airstrikes or shelling. They also stated that around 100,000 had fled their homes. If the fighting intensifies, they estimate that as many as 4 million people could flee.
On Friday night, the U.S. President Joe Biden issued a memo authorizing additional security assistance for Ukraine up to $350m. This brings the total amount of security aid to Ukraine at $1 billion in the last year. It wasn’t clear when the assistance would begin to flow.
Zelenskyy’s whereabouts were kept secret after he told European leaders in a call Thursday that he was Russia’s No. 1 target — and that they might not see him again alive. Later, his office released video showing him with top aides outside of the presidential office. He said that he would remain in the capital along with other officials.
Zelenskyy had offered to negotiate earlier on a critical Putin demand. He wanted Ukraine to declare its neutrality and drop the ambitions of becoming a NATO member. After Kyiv agreed initially to meet in Minsk but then stated it prefer Warsaw, and the Kremlin subsequently halted communication. Maria Zakharova spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry and said that Kyiv was open to discussing prospects for negotiations on Saturday.
Putin denied that the attack was in progress for as long as he could remember. The U.S. and its allies had been anticipating the assault for several weeks. He argued that the West left him with no other choice by refusing to negotiate Russia’s security demands.
Putin is not yet open about his plans for Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a hint, saying, “We want to allow the Ukrainian people to determine its own fate.” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia recognizes Zelenskyy as the president, but would not say how long the Russian military operation could last.
After amassing around 150,000 soldiers nearby, Russian troops invaded from all three directions.
A Kyiv apartment block was woken by screaming and smoke, as well as flying dust. The mayor identified the incident as Russian shelling, which tore down a portion of the building and set off a fire.
“What are you doing? What is this?” resident Yurii Zhyhanov asked Russian forces. He grabbed his belongings and took his mother with him, leaving behind car alarms.
The body of an unidentified soldier lay in a nearby area. A few fragments from a downed plane were smoked among the brick homes in a residential neighborhood. The black plastic draped body parts that were found next to them. To face yet another day of chaos, people climbed from bomb shelters, subways, and basements.
“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.
Friday’s announcement by the Biden administration was that they would freeze Putin’s assets and Lavrov’s assets, as a result of the direct sanctioning by the European Union (and Britain) of top Russian leaders.
Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, called the sanctions against Putin and Lavrov “an example and a demonstration of a total helplessness” of the West.
Isachenkov reported out of Moscow. LaPorta reported out of Boca Raton in Florida. Francesca Ebel and Josef Federman in Kyiv, Angela Charlton and Frank Jordans respectively in Berlin, Raf Casert, Lorne Cook and Nic Dumitrache, Mariupol in Ukraine, Matt Sedensky and Jennifer Peltz in New York, Jennifer Peltz and Darlene Superville contributed to the report.