Russian forces press closer to Kyiv, Zelenskyy calls for talks

On Friday, Russian forces pressed closer to the Ukrainian capital as a barrage of airstrikes targeted cities and military bases. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's offer to designate Ukraine a non-aligned country met a mixed reception in Moscow.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
A man walks past a building damaged following a rocket attack the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022. Russian troops were closing in on the city Friday.

Invading Russian forces closed in on Ukraine’s capital Friday, in what appeared to be an encircling movement after a barrage of airstrikes on cities and military bases around the country.

Pre-dawn explosions rocked Kyiv, and gunfire was reported in parts of the city, while Ukraine’s military said a group of Russian spies and saboteurs was seen on the capital’s outskirts. Police told people not to exit a central subway station because of gunfire in the area.

The assault, anticipated for weeks by the West, amounts to Europe’s largest ground conflict since World War II. It could also portend the emergence of a new “Iron Curtain” between the West and Russia, with global repercussions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed for defense assistance and tougher sanctions on Russia. President Joe Biden was to meet Friday with fellow NATO leaders during a virtual summit.

Here are the things to know about the conflict and the security crisis in former Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe:

Kremlin mulls Ukraine’s offer of neutrality 

The Kremlin said Friday that President Vladimir Putin was ready to send a delegation for talks to discuss Mr. Zelenskyy’s offer to designate Ukraine a non-aligned country. The offer suggests Mr. Zelenskyy would be willing to negotiate dropping his country’s bid to join NATO.

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin expressed his readiness for talks with Ukrainian officials to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who “views the Russian leadership’s action in the crisis situation with respect.”

According to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi agreed that the West has imposed “illegitimate” sanctions against Russia “for achieving selfish goals of certain countries.”

Before the invasion, the West had rejected Russia’s demand to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Mr. Putin used the refusal to justify the invasion, claiming that the West left him no other choice.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Mr. Zelenskyy of “simply lying” about the non-alignment offer, saying the president “missed the opportunity” to discuss Ukraine’s neutral status when Mr. Putin initially proposed it.

Civilians in harm’s way 

As they awakened on the second day of Russia’s invasion, horrified civilians found themselves at risk as artillery shells rained down on some residential buildings on Kyiv’s outskirts.

Russia has said it is not targeting cities, but the fighting would seem to belie that. The body of a soldier lay on the ground near a Kyiv underpass. Elsewhere, fragments of a downed aircraft lay amid a residential area’s brick homes with black plastic covering body parts found nearby.

City residents stood uneasily in doorways of apartment buildings watching armored personnel carriers driving down the streets.

Russia’s military said it had seized a strategic airport outside Kyiv, allowing it to quickly build up forces to take the capital. It claimed to have already cut the city off from the west — the direction taken by many of those escaping the invasion, leading to lines of cars snaking toward the Polish border.

Intense gunfire broke out on a bridge across the Dneiper River dividing eastern and western Kyiv, with about 200 Ukrainian forces taking defensive positions and sheltering behind their armored vehicles and under the bridge. Another key bridge leading to the capital was blown away, with smoke rising from it.

Ukrainian officials reported at least 137 deaths on their side and claimed hundreds on the Russian one. Russian authorities released no casualty figures, and it was not possible to verify the tolls.

U.N. officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and airstrikes, and said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes, estimating up to 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates.

“When bombs fall on Kyiv, it happens in Europe, not just in Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. “When missiles kill our people, they kill all Europeans.”

A U.S. defense official said a Russian amphibious assault was underway, and thousands of Russian naval infantry were moving ashore from the Sea of Azov, west of Mariupol. The official said Ukrainian air defenses have been degraded but are still operating, and that about a third of the combat power that Russia had massed around Ukraine is now in the country. All told, the official estimated Russia had fired more than 200 missiles into Ukraine, with some hitting residential areas.

Britain’s defense ministry said the bulk of Russian forces advancing on Kyiv were still more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the city center, with sporadic clashes in the capital’s northern suburbs.

Nuclear war nightmare revisited

Reviving Cold War fears of a nuclear showdown, Mr. Putin has warned in a speech that he has the weapons available if anyone dares to use military means to try to stop his takeover of Ukraine.

Whether an empty threat or not, Mr. Putin’s words re-animated the specter of nuclear war – through accident or miscalculation.

The Russian president said in a speech early Thursday that despite “losing a considerable part of its capabilities after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Russia remains “one of the most powerful nuclear states” and has “a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons.”

Mr. Putin’s mere reference to nuclear weapons has sent a jolt through the West about the possibility that the fighting in Ukraine might lead to a Russia-U.S. nuclear confrontation.

Turning the financial screws on Russia

The West has taken a military option in Ukraine off the table, but world leaders – with the exception of Moscow ally China – are preparing measures aimed at hurting the Russian economy and its leaders, including Mr. Putin’s inner circle.

French President Emmanuel Macron said his country and its allies have decided to further sanction individuals, as well as impose penalties targeting finance, energy, and other sectors.

Mr. Macron also said the EU has decided on an “unprecedented” 1.5 billion euros ($1.68 billion) in economic aid for Ukraine.

Among the penalties the European Union is considering is freezing the assets of Mr. Putin and his foreign minister. But it was unclear how badly they would be hit by such a move or if it would be mainly symbolic.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said the EU was “very close to an agreement” on the asset freeze for Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov.

Mr. Asselborn said even further sanctions were still possible, including booting Russia off SWIFT, the dominant system for global financial transactions.

Asian and Pacific countries have joined the West in taking punitive measures against Russia, including export controls aimed at starving its industries and military of semiconductors and other high-tech products.

In retaliation to a British ban on Aeroflot flights, Russia’s civil aviation authority forbade U.K. flights to and over Russia starting Friday.

Sporting world turns its back

Russia has been stripped of hosting the Champions League final by UEFA with St. Petersburg replaced by Paris, and Formula One dropped this season’s Russian Grand Prix at Sochi.

The showpiece final in the European men’s football season will still be held on May 28 but at the 80,000-seat Stade de France after the decision by UEFA’s executive committee.

It followed discussions led by UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin that involved the European Commission and Mr. Macron after concerns over Russia retaining such a prestigious event in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

The F1 race wasn’t due until September but the motorsport series leadership decided it would be “impossible” to stage it there after talks with teams and the FIA governing body.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers around the world contributed to this report.

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