KYIV (REUTERS, AFP) – Russian troops in Ukraine were on Saturday (Feb 26) ordered to resume their offensive from all directions after a pause the previous day, Russia’s defence ministry said.
The announcement came after Russian forces pounded Ukrainian cities with artillery and cruise missiles for a third day running.
Ukraine’s defiant President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, said the capital Kyiv remained in Ukrainian hands.
Russian forces captured the southeastern Ukrainian city of Melitopol on Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, as Moscow launched coordinated strikes on several cities, including the capital Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials were not immediately available for comment on the fate of Melitopol, a city of about 150,000 people.
If confirmed, it would be the first significant population centre the Russians have seized since their invasion began on Thursday.
The Russian claim is being disputed by British armed forces minister James Heappey.
He said it was the British assessment that Russia has so far failed to capture any of its day one targets for its invasion.
“Even Melitopol, which the Russians are claiming to have taken but we can’t see anything to substantiate that, are all still in Ukrainian hands,” Heappey told BBC radio.
Authorities in Kyiv are meanwhile asking residents to stay indoors due to fighting in the streets of the capital, according to a government statement quoted by the Interfax news agency.
"There are hostilities in the streets of our city," it said, adding that residents should hide in shelters in case of an air raid alarm.
Two missiles hit areas southwest of Kyiv's city centre, a Reuters correspondent reported.
One of the missiles landed in the area close to the Zhulyany airport, he said.
Another witness said the missiles hit the area near the Sevastopol square.
The Kyiv city government said one of the missiles struck a residential building. It was later reported that two people had been killed. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine said six people were also seriously injured.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces also fired cruise missiles from the Black Sea at the cities of Sumy, Poltava and Mariupol and there was heavy fighting near the southern city of Mariupol.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking in a video message from outside his Kyiv office, was defiant.
“We will not put down weapons, we will defend our state,” Zelensky said.
In the capital, Ukrainian troops are in control of the Kyiv hydroelectric power plant to the north of the capital, the Interfax news agency reported, citing Ukraine’s energy ministry.
Ukraine earlier reported an attack on a military base close to the city centre, which it said had been repelled.
Russia “attacked one of the military units on Victory Avenue in Kyiv. The attack was repulsed,” Ukraine’s army said on its verified Facebook page, without specifying where exactly the incident took place.
In a video address to the nation hours ago, Zelensky had said Russian troops would attempt to take the capital city Kyiv during the night.
“I have to say absolutely openly. This night will be more difficult than the day. Many cities of our state are under attack,” Zelensky had said.
“Special attention on Kyiv – we cannot lose the capital,” he added in the clip released by the presidency.
In the US, President Joe Biden has instructed the State Department to release US$350 million (S$473 million) in military aid to Ukraine.
In a memorandum to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden directed that US$350 million allocated through the Foreign Assistance Act be designated for Ukraine’s defence.
Earlier, the Russian and Ukrainian governments had signalled an openness to negotiations even as authorities in Kyiv urged citizens to help defend the capital from advancing Russian forces in the worst European security crisis in decades.
Ukraine and Russia are discussing a place and time for talks, President Zelensky's spokesman Sergii Nykyforov said on social media.
The Kremlin said earlier on Friday it had offered to meet with Ukrainian officials in the Belarusian capital Minsk, but that Ukraine had instead proposed Warsaw as a venue, resulting in a "pause" in contacts.
"Ukraine was and remains ready to talk about a ceasefire and peace," Nykyforov said.
But US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Russia's offer of talks was an attempt to conduct diplomacy "at the barrel of a gun", and that President Vladimir Putin's military must stop bombing Ukraine if it was serious about negotiations.
The overtures stood in stark contrast to events unfolding on the ground and Putin's harsh rhetoric against Ukrainian leaders, including a call for a coup by the country's military.
Kyiv residents were told by the defence ministry to make petrol bombs to repel the invaders, and on Friday evening witnesses reported hearing artillery rounds and intense gunfire from the western part of the city.
Zelensky filmed himself with aides on the streets of the capital, vowing to defend Ukraine's independence.
Some families cowered in shelters after Kyiv was pounded on Thursday night by Russian missiles. Others tried desperately to get on packed trains headed west, some of the hundreds of thousands who have left their homes to find safety, according to the United Nations' aid chief.
After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin unleashed a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine from the north, east and south on Thursday, in an attack that threatened to upend Europe's post-Cold War order.
"I once again appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine: do not allow neo-Nazis and (Ukrainian radical nationalists) to use your children, wives and elders as human shields," Putin said at a televised meeting with Russia's Security Council on Friday. "Take power into your own hands, it will be easier for us to reach agreement."
Putin has cited the need to "denazify" Ukraine's leadership as one of his main reasons for invasion, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss the accusations as baseless propaganda.
The White House said the United States would impose sanctions on both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - moves coordinated with the European Union and Britain. However, the steady ramping-up of restrictions has not deterred Russia.
Moscow said it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital - a potential staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war. This could not be confirmed and Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.
The mayor of Kyiv and its three million people, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said Russian saboteurs had already entered the city.
"The enemy wants to put the capital on its knees and destroy us," he said.
'Glory to our defenders'
Amid the chaos of war, a picture of what was happening on the ground across the country - the second largest in Europe after Russia itself - was slow to emerge.
Zelensky tweeted that there had been heavy fighting with deaths at the entrance to the eastern cities of Chernihiv and Melitopol, as well as at Hostomel.
"Glory to our defenders, both male and female, glory to Ukraine," he said, flanked by the prime minister and advisers in a video posted to confirm he was in the capital.
Witnesses said they had heard explosions and gunfire near the airport in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, close to Russia's border, and air raid sirens sounded over Lviv in the west. Ukraine's military said Russian troops had been stopped with heavy losses near the northeastern city of Konotop.
Britain's defence ministry said Russian armoured forces had opened a new route of advance towards the capital after failing to take Chernihiv.
Ukraine said more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. Russia did not release casualty figures.
The US Secretary of State spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart and condemned reported civilian deaths, including those of Ukrainian children, in attacks around Kyiv, the State Department said.
United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths said hundreds of thousands of people were on the move in Ukraine, adding that "north of a billion dollars" would be needed for relief operations in the next three months.
Ukraine has banned men of fighting age from leaving, and at borders with Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, those seen crossing by Reuters journalists were mostly women and children.
Women cried as they bade goodbye to male loved ones and crossed into Romania.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the decision to sanction Putin personally - something Biden had avoided until now - was intended to send a clear message of allied opposition. The EU earlier agreed to freeze any assets in the bloc belonging to Putin or Lavrov, and Britain followed suit.
Russia's foreign ministry said the new sanctions reflected the West's "absolute impotence," the RIA news agency reported.
Western countries have announced a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports. But they have so far stopped short of forcing it out of the Swift system for international bank payments, drawing criticism from Kyiv.
On Friday, European soccer's governing body moved May's high-profile Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris, and Formula One cancelled this year's Russian Grand Prix. The European Broadcasting Union shut Russia out of the widely watched Eurovision Song Contest for 2022.
'Born in hell'
US officials believe Russia's initial aim is to "decapitate" Zelensky's government.
Putin says Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their more than thousand-year history.
He says he does not plan a military occupation, only to disarm Ukraine and remove its leaders, but it is not clear how a pro-Russian leader could be installed unless Russian troops control much of the country.
Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and Kyiv hopes to join Nato and the EU - aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
As air raid sirens wailed over Kyiv for a second day, some residents sheltered in underground metro stations.
Windows were blasted out of a 10-storey apartment block near the main airport. A two-metre crater showed where a shell had struck before dawn.
"How can we be living through this in our time? Putin should burn in hell along with his whole family," said Oxana Gulenko, sweeping broken glass from her room.
Hundreds crowded into a cramped bomb shelter beneath one building after a televised warning of air strikes.
"How can you wage a war against peaceful people?" said Viktoria, 35, as her children aged five and seven slept in their winter coats.
Thousands of people crowded Kyiv's railway station trying to force their way onto packed trains evacuating people westward to Lviv. When a train arrived, people rushed the doors, some screamed, and guards fired blanks to scare the crowd away.
Maria, 30, had been there since the morning with her child, husband and dog, trying and failing to board the trains.
"It's dangerous to break through the crowd with a kid," she said. "The dog is scared. Honestly, we're exhausted."