KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An embattled Ukraine moved to solidify its bond with the West on Monday by applying to join the European Union, while the first round of Ukraine-Russia talks aimed at ending the fighting concluded with no deal but an agreement to keep talking.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, posted pictures showing himself signing the E.U. This is a symbolic gesture for the moment and could be years away from becoming a reality. It will not sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin who long accuses the West of trying pull Ukraine into their orbit.
Russian and Ukrainian officials held their meeting on Day Five of the war under the shadow of Putin’s nuclear threats, and with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine running into unexpectedly fierce resistance and Western sanctions beginning to wreak havoc on the economy at home.
A top Zelenskyy adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the the talks, held near the Ukraine-Belarus border, were focused on a possible cease-fire and that a second round could take place “in the near future.”
A top Putin aide and head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said that the discussions lasted nearly five hours and that the envoys “found certain points on which common positions could be foreseen.” He said they agreed to continue the talks in the coming days.
As the talks ended, several blasts can be heard in Kyiv. But, there were no immediate details. Russian troops are pushing against Ukraine from multiple fronts and had been slowing moving toward the capital, which is home to nearly 3 million inhabitants. They were located about 25km (15 miles) outside the center of the city, according to senior U.S. defense officials who were not authorized to speak on behalf of the United States to provide military assessments.
Billboards, buses stops, and electronic traffic signs all over Kyiv displayed messages directed at the approaching Russian soldiers. Others used profanity in an attempt to get the Russians to flee. Other appealed for their humanity.
“Russian soldier—Stop! Keep your loved ones in mind. Go home with a clean conscience,” one read.
Meanwhile, social media video from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, showed residential areas being shelled, with apartment buildings shaken by repeated, powerful blasts. Kharkiv authorities said that at least seven were dead and several others had been injured. However, they warned that the number of casualties could rise.
“They wanted to have a blitzkrieg, but it failed, so they act this way,” said 83-year-old Valentin Petrovich, using just his first name and his Russian-style middle name because of fear for his safety. He described the experience from his apartment in downtown.
Even though there is ample evidence to support the claims, Russia’s military denied that they targeted residential areas.
For the second day in a row, the Kremlin raised the specter of nuclear war, reporting that its land, air and sea nuclear forces had been put on high alert following Putin’s weekend order. And stepping up his rhetoric, Putin denounced the U.S. and its allies as an “empire of lies.”
The nuclear high alert evoked memories of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. Many were also concerned about the possibility that Russia might be drawn into direct war with the West.
However, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had yet to see any appreciable change in Russia’s nuclear posture.
As the sanctions on Russian banks and other institutions took hold, Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore up the tanking ruble, and Putin signed a decree on foreign currency, in a bid to stabilize the ruble.
However, this did not calm Russian concerns. Moscow saw people line up to withdraw money, as the sanctions were expected to raise prices and decrease the standard of life for many millions of Russians.
In Ukraine, families in panic hid overnight in basements and 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 port city of Mariupol. Parents tried to comfort their children, keeping them warm.
The U.N. human rights chief said at least 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in more than four days of fighting — warning that figure is probably a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead.
Another U.N. official stated that more than half-million have fled the country following the invasion. Most of them are going to Poland and Romania. The millions who fled have also left their homes.
The negotiations at Monday’s talks met at a long table with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.
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 perhaps a sign of how seriously Moscow views the talks.
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.
Also, the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly opened its first emergency session in decades in order to deal with the Ukraine invasion, with Assembly President Abdulla Shahid calling for an immediate cease-fire, maximum restraint by all parties and “a full return to diplomacy and dialogue.”
In other fighting, strategic ports in the country’s south came under assault from Russian forces. Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, is “hanging on,” said Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich. A Sumy oil depot was bombed, according to reports. Ukrainian protestors demonstrated their opposition to the Russian invasion of Berdyansk.
Online and ground wars are being waged. Cyberattacks have hit embassies of Ukraine around the globe, as well as Russian media.
Ukraine has a long way to go before it meets the criteria for E.U. membership. membership. A 27-nation addition must be unanimously approved.
Overall, the consensus has been that Ukraine’s deep-seated corruption could make it hard for the country to win E.U. acceptance. E.U. still spoke out in a Sunday interview to Euronews. Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said, “We want them in the European Union.”
— Isachenkov and Litvinova reported from Moscow. Ellen Knickmeyer; Eric Tucker; Robert Burns; Hope Yen; James LaPorta; Francesca Ebel; Josef Federman; Andrew Drake in Kyiv. Mstyslavchernov and Nic Dmitrache are in Mariupol in Ukraine. Lorne cook in Brussels. Other AP journalists around the globe contributed to this article.