MOSCOW/KYIV (AFP, REUTERS) - Ukraine said on Sunday (Feb 27) that it would hold talks with Russia at its border with Belarus – near the Chernobyl exclusion zone – after a call between President Volodymyr Zelensky and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko.
“The politicians agreed that the Ukrainian delegation would meet the Russian one without preconditions at the Ukraine-Belarus border, near the Pripyat River,” Mr Zelensky’s office said.
Mr Zelensky has said he will not hold talks with Russia on the territory of Belarus, where some Russian troops were stationed before invading on Ukraine’s northern border.
But Kyiv said Mr Lukashenko assured Mr Zelensky that “all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on Belarus territory will remain on the ground during the travel, negotiations and return of the Ukrainian delegation”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that a Russian delegation was currently in the Belarusian city of Gomel. Moscow had wanted to hold the talks in Kremlin-aligned Belarus. Mr Zelensky, refusing to travel to Minsk, said Kyiv had proposed “Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul, Baku” as options to Russia.
Russia dropped its preconditions for talks after suffering military setbacks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said, adding that Ukraine would attend the talks to listen to what Russia had to say.
He also told a briefing that Mr Putin’s move to put nuclear forces on high alert was timed to put pressure on Ukraine during the negotiations.
The announcement of the impending talks came shortly after news broke that Mr Putin had ordered his military command to put Russia's deterrence forces - a reference to units that include nuclear arms - on high alert, citing aggressive statements by Nato leaders and economic sanctions against Moscow.
"As you can see, not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension - I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone knows about very well - but also the top officials of leading Nato countries allow themselves to make aggressive statements with regard to our country," Mr Putin said on state television on Sunday.
Mr Putin's order is an unacceptable escalation, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
“It means that President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable and we have to continue to stem his actions in the strongest possible way,” she said in an interview with CBS.
Mr Putin’s order is part of a pattern of Moscow manufacturing threats to justify aggression, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an interview with ABC.
“We’ve seen him do this time and time again. At no point has Russia been under threat from Nato, has Russia been under threat from Ukraine,” she added.
“This is all a pattern from President Putin and we’re going to stand up to it. We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here from President Putin."
The United States is open to providing additional assistance to Ukraine, Ms Psaki said, adding that Washington also has not taken sanctions targeting Russia’s energy sector off the table.
“We have not taken those off, but we also want to do that and make sure we’re minimising the impact on the global marketplace and do it in a united way,” she said.
Ukraine fought off an incursion by Russian troops into its second-biggest city Kharkiv on Sunday, the fourth day of the invasion.
Officials claimed to have expelled Russian troops after Russian armoured vehicles got through its defences.
In the capital of Kyiv, too, Ukraine was still holding the line, although it was fighting Russian “sabotage groups” that had infiltrated the city.
The mayor of Kyiv said there were no Russian troops in the capital, which was holding its defence against attacks.
Mr Vitaly Klitschko said that in total, 31 people have died in the capital since the attacks started, including nine civilians, while 106 people have been injured.
“Our military, law enforcement and territorial defence continue to detect and neutralise saboteurs,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
Mr Zelensky has urged foreigners to sign up for an “international brigade” of volunteers at Ukrainian embassies to help fight invading Russian forces.
Russia has ordered an advance “from all directions” and pounded the Ukrainian military with cruise missiles. But at the same time, it offered talks if Kyiv surrenders its arms.
Moscow said its forces had “entirely” besieged the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and Berdyansk in the south-east on the Sea of Azov.
But Washington said the invading forces have lost “momentum over the last 24 hours” after meeting stiff resistance and still have not gained air superiority.
The United Nations’ refugee agency said at least 368,000 people are fleeing the fighting, with most crossing into Poland. Tens of thousands are also seeking shelter in Hungary, Romania and Moldova.
Germany’s train operator Deutsche Bahn offered free rides to refugees travelling into the country from Poland, as Pope Francis called for the “urgent” opening of humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee the fighting.
Help from the West
Germany said it was sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles to help Ukraine, after the United States vowed US$350 million (S$474 million) in additional military funding.
In a dramatic reversal of its post-war disarmament policy, Germany also announced that it would invest €100 billion (S$153 billion) in military equipment this year and plough more than 2 per cent of its economic output into defence annually, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Greece are also rushing military equipment, light weapons or fuel to Ukraine, while Italy has sent €110 million in immediate aid.
Western nations, as well as Japan, have pledged to remove some Russian banks from the Swift interbank system, crippling part of its global trade.
Earlier in the day, tech billionaire Elon Musk ordered his SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service to supply broadband to Ukraine after a government minister pleaded publicly for his help after Russia blocked Internet coverage in the country.
Google followed Facebook in preventing Russian state media from earning money on its platforms in response to the invasion of Ukraine.