Russia pounds Ukrainian cities with missiles and artillery; Ukrainian leader remains defiant

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The Russian military launched cruise missiles and shelled Ukrainian cities with artillery fire for a third day running, but a defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the push to capture his capital, Kyiv, and oust him had been halted amid a consolidation of support from Western nations.

"We've derailed their plan," he said, declaring that the Ukrainian army was in control of the capital and the main cities around it.

In a selfie video shot against the backdrop of Kyiv landmarks to disprove rumours that he had fled the country, the President ordered his army not to surrender.

He said: "I am here. We will not lay down any weapons... This is our land, our country, our children and we will protect all of this."

He also rejected a US offer to help him evacuate, saying: "I need ammunition, not a ride."

But the odds are against Ukraine, which is heavily outmatched by Russia's military might.

On Saturday (Feb 26), a high-rise apartment block in Kyiv was hit by a missile as fighting continued in a number of cities, including Odessa in the south, Kharkiv in the north-east and Lviv in the west. Russian forces were only about 30km away from the Kyiv city centre, according to a British assessment on Saturday night.

If Ukraine does hold up in what is likely to be a long and bloody war, it could weaken Russian President Vladimir Putin's grip on power and undermine his thrust to push Russia on the world stage.

But if control of Ukraine passes into Mr Putin's hands, the geopolitical balance in Europe may tilt in Moscow's favour and push the US-backed Nato alliance to recast its defensive stance.

Warning that "the Kremlin's objectives are not limited to Ukraine", Nato for the first time activated its 40,000-troop rapid response force on Saturday to bolster defences on its eastern flank.

The decision, taken in an emergency meeting, will see Nato beef up military aid to Ukraine without sending combat troops to join the battle. The US announced an additional US$350 million (S$473 million) worth of weapons like small arms and munitions in support of Ukraine's fighters.

Stepping up the response to the most serious security crisis in 77 years since World War II, the US and the European Union added Mr Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to their sanctions list. It is rare for the US to sanction a sitting world leader and Moscow has previously said the move would amount to a de facto severing of relations.

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In a sharp response, Mr Putin's close ally and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said: "We don't especially need diplomatic relations... It's time to padlock the embassies and continue contacts looking at each other through binoculars and gun sights."

Moscow could mount a stronger response if Western nations cut off the country from the Swift banking transfer system. This could prompt Russia, which accounts for over 40 per cent of Europe's gas supplies, to close the pipelines.

In a measure of support for Ukraine worldwide, 87 nations stood in favour of a draft UN Security Council resolution deploring Russia's move to invade its neighbour. But Moscow, one of five permanent members with the power of veto in the 15-member council, used it to block the resolution while China, which is also a permanent member, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained.

Except for Myanmar, no country has explicitly endorsed Russia's invasion which Ukraine said has caused the deaths of 198 civilians and more than 3,500 Russian soldiers. Moscow has not yet reported any casualties.

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In signs of a swelling refugee crisis, more than 120,000 Ukrainians were sheltering in sports halls and train stations in Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania.

The Russian invasion has dampened prospects of a global recovery from the two-year-old Covid-19 pandemic and economic distress.

The fear that the conflict could disrupt global oil supplies has pushed a number of nations to tap into their strategic reserves. Wheat prices climbed to their highest in 14 years amid concerns about grain and oilseed supplies from Russia and Ukraine, two of the world's biggest exporters.

Repercussions reached the world of sports too. Poland on Saturday said it would refuse to play its 2022 World Cup football play-off against Russia next month.

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