The battle for Kyiv rages on. The Ukrainian capital, in the sights of Russian President Vladimir Putin, awoke on Saturday to the sound of gunfire and detonations on the streets, following a night during which the rumble of explosions was ever-present. Early in the morning, an apartment block in the north of the city suffered a huge impact. The Ukrainian government stated it had been hit by a Russian missile. A video released by the National Emergency Service shows what appears to be a missile hitting the building and images from a security camera in one of the apartments record the moment of impact. According to local reports, there were no fatalities. The Ukrainian Health Ministry on Saturday stated that 198 people have been killed during the past three days of fighting, including three children, and over 1,100 people have been wounded.
Putin’s assault on Ukraine, which he has denounced as being governed by a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” has led to thousands of Kyiv’s 2.8 million residents seeking shelter in the city’s subway system. Across the capital, the Ukrainian army has blown up several bridges in an attempt to halt the advance of Russian troops. Street fighting has broken out around Kyiv, with explosions and small arms fire being heard in various points of the city. Ukrainian armed forces, backed by armed civilians, have established check points and set up barricades of tires to cut off streets. Shoot-outs between advancing Russian troops and defenders have erupted as Kyiv attempts to halt the advance. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had previously warned that the city faced a long and hard night of siege.
Russian forces have launched coordinated missiles and artillery offensives against several Ukrainian cities, including the use of cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea against targets in Sumy, Poltava and the port of Mariupol on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov, where there has been heavy fighting. Russia claims to have assumed control of Melitopol, a city of 150,000 inhabitants in southeastern Ukraine, following an amphibious assault by marines designed to open up a route to take Mariupol. However, the mayor of Melitopol issued a communique stating that the city remains in Ukrainian hands. If the fall of the city to Russian forces is confirmed it will be a major breakthrough for Putin, who on Thursday announced a “military operation” in the separatist Donbas region that has in reality been a full-scale land, air and sea assault on the entire country.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military is holding out against the Russian offensive. The authorities have been arming civilians and warning them to prepare for any eventuality, including using Molotov cocktails against advancing troops. On Friday, several radio broadcasts gave instructions for fashioning the improvised devices.
In the government-controlled area of Donbas, territory the Kremlin claims for pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk who control a third of the mining region, and in Dnipro, dozens of armored vehicles and military trucks, some with missile carriers, litter the roads. On Saturday morning, military personnel were digging trenches in the forests around the main highway near Pavlohrad and erecting barricades.
Defiant Zelenskiy refuses to leave Ukraine
After a night of heavy fighting across Ukraine and rumors of a US offer to help the president flee the country, Zelenskiy issued another statement via social media in which he urged Ukrainian citizens not to heed “fake news” about a possible surrender. “There is a lot of false information online that I am asking our army to lay down its arms and that an evacuation is underway,” the Ukrainian president, wearing military fatigues, said in a video recorded in the center of Kyiv. “I am here. We will not lay down our arms. We will defend our state.”
While the battle for Ukraine rages and the army fights against the ferocious Russian offensive, the possibility of diplomatic channels being opened has emerged. On Friday, as Putin’s forces advanced in Kyiv, Zelenskiy reiterated his invitation to the Russian president to negotiate to put an end to the bloodshed. With Ukraine on the brink, the Kremlin stated that Putin would be prepared to return to Minsk, where the peace agreements for the Donbas region were signed. The two accords, reached in 2014 and 2015, failed to resolve a conflict that has so far cost 14,000 lives but it did establish a dividing line between the separatist and government-controlled parts of the region.
Belarus, however, is no longer the buffer between Russia and the West that it was at that time. The autocratic leader of Moscow’s closest ally in the region, Aleksandr Lukashenko, is beholden to Putin and increasingly reliant on the Kremlin. Late on Friday, Zelenskiy asked Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to mediate in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel told CNN. However, the bottom line is that Putin does not recognize the legitimacy of Zelenskiy as president. On the same day, the Russian leader called on the Ukrainian army to stage a coup, overthrow Zelenskiy and join him at the negotiating table.