Ukrainians brace themselves for battle in Kyiv as Russian tanks roll in; Chinese President Xi Jinping supports talks

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Russian forces advanced into the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Friday (Feb 25), with tanks rolling into its northern districts, but the first chance for talks also appeared to be taking shape.

A Kremlin spokesman said Russian President Vladimir Putin was prepared to send representatives to Belarusian capital Minsk for talks with a Ukrainian delegation. 

The Russian offer came hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address that he was ready to discuss Ukraine’s “neutral status”. 

“Fighting is taking place across the entire territory of Ukraine. Let us sit down at the negotiating table in order to stop the dying,” he said.

Further details were not available but at a press conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was ready for talks if Ukraine’s army surrendered.

“We are ready for negotiations at any moment, as soon as the armed forces of Ukraine respond to our call and lay down their arms,” he said.

Support for talks also came from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who said he supported solving the crisis through talks in a call with Mr Putin.

State broadcaster CCTV reported that Mr Xi pointed out that the “situation in eastern Ukraine has undergone rapid changes... (and) China supports Russia and Ukraine to resolve the issue through negotiation”.

Mr Zelensky, in the same speech, also implored Europe to act more quickly and forcefully. “Europe has enough strength to stop this aggression,” he said. All options, including banning Russians from entering the European Union to cutting Moscow off from the Swift international payments system to an oil embargo, should be on the table, he added.

“You still can stop this aggression. You have to act swiftly,” he said.

In the second day of battle, social media showed Russian armoured vehicles rolling into Kyiv. In its northern district Obolonsky, pedestrians ran for safety amid gunfire and explosions.

The Ukrainian Defence Ministry urged civilians to resist. “Inform us of troop movements, to make Molotov cocktails, and neutralise the enemy,” it said.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the capital had come under a missile attack.

"Horrific Russian rocket strikes on Kyiv," he tweeted. "Last time our capital experienced anything like this was in 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany."

Mr Zelensky said Ukraine’s military had stopped Russia from achieving its objectives on the first day of the assault.

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“Russia will have to talk to us sooner or later, talk about how to end the fighting and stop this invasion,” Mr Zelensky, said in a morning address on Friday.  “The sooner this conversation begins, the smaller the losses of Russia itself.”

He had earlier warned that Russian saboteurs had entered Kyiv and that his life as well as the lives of his family were under threat.

"According to the available intelligence, the enemy marked me as target No. 1 and my family as target No. 2," he said in a short video address released after midnight on Friday in Ukraine.

"They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of the state."

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False rumours were circulating that he had fled the country, Mr Zelensky said, adding: "I am staying in the capital." He said his family was also in Ukraine, but that he could not disclose their location.

He announced a full military mobilisation, with all men aged between 18 and 60 barred from leaving the country.

Russian forces had lost more than 30 tanks, up to 130 armoured vehicles, seven planes and six helicopters, according to Lieutenant-General Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine's armed forces. He estimated that between 30,000 and 60,000 Russian troops were in Ukrainian territory.

The wreckage of an unidentified aircraft that crashed into a private house in a residential area in Kyiv on Feb 25, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Firefighters working in a damaged residential building at Koshytsa Street, a suburb in Ukrainian capital Kyiv, after it was allegedly hit by a shell, on Feb 25, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

As he gave the casualty figures for Day 1 of the invasion: 137 people killed, 10 of them officers, 316 people wounded, Mr Zelensky told Ukrainians not to expect help from abroad.

"We are left to our own devices in defence of our state," he said. "Who is ready to fight together with us? Honestly, I do not see such."

Russia said on Thursday that its forces had “successfully completed” their objectives for the day, claiming to have destroyed over 70 Ukrainian military targets, including 11 airfields.

The United Nations’ refugee agency said some 100,000 people were already displaced inside Ukraine, while thousands of others had fled across the border. Streams of people in cars and on foot were seen crossing into Hungary, Poland and Romania.

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Ukrainian people sheltering in Pushkinskaya underground station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Fall of Kyiv imminent, say Western assessments

Russian troops were advancing along both sides of the Dnieper river, which cuts through Ukraine, with the intent of taking over Kyiv, the capital with its population of three million.

On Thursday, they took over the Chernobyl nuclear power station - the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986 during the Soviet era - which is about 130km north of Kyiv and close to the Belarus border. Holding Chernobyl would provide Russian troops with a staging point that cannot be shelled.

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Russian troops also landed along the Kyiv Reservoir to the north of the capital. They have already captured several airfields from where more reinforcements can be dispatched. 

Kyiv could fall in the next few days, according to Western assessments.

Simultaneously, the Russians are moving to encircle Ukraine's forces in the east by cutting through the country from the Russian border to the Black Sea.

The Russian plans appear to be comprehensive, with the Pentagon in Washington warning that Russia's primary objective appeared to be to "decapitate" the Ukrainian government.

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Newsweek magazine quoted Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak as saying that Kyiv suspected Moscow's goals were to displace the leadership and seize government buildings in major cities.

"The Office of the President of Ukraine believes the Russian federation has two tactical goals - to seize territories and attack the legitimate political leadership of Ukraine in order to spread chaos and install a marionette government that would sign a peace deal on bilateral relations with Russia," Mr Podolyak told Newsweek.

Can Putin be stopped?

Diplomacy appears to have ground to a halt. US President Joe Biden earlier this week abandoned a plan for a meeting with Mr Putin. The one path that remains open is through Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron contacted Mr Putin on Thursday, the Russian leader's first conversation with a Western counterpart since the assault.

"Vladimir Putin gave extensive explanations of the causes and circumstances of why a decision was taken to launch a special military operation. It was decided to remain in contact," the Kremlin said in a terse readout after the phone call.

On Saturday morning (Singapore time), the United Nations Security Council is poised to vote on a draft resolution condemning the invasion and demanding Moscow withdraw its troops.

But its failure to pass is a foregone conclusion, owing to the fact that Russia can veto it as a permanent member of the council.

In other initiatives under way to resolve the crisis, the US-led Nato defence alliance will hold an emergency summit of all the leaders of its member states on Friday. The meeting is due to start at 10pm, Singapore time. Nato has ruled out deploying combat troops in Ukraine although it has put its fighter planes and warships on alert.

The US also does not expect to enter the battle in Ukraine, but a US defence official said 7,000 more troops would be sent to Germany to reassure Nato allies, deter Russian aggression and support "a range of requirements" in the region.

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Protesters demonstrating outside the United Nations headquarters in New York after Russia invaded Ukraine, on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sanctions may not work

The US and its G-7 counterparts on Thursday agreed to impose "devastating packages of sanctions and other economic measures" on Russia. These target four major Russian banks, as well as oligarchs and their families.

The measures were designed to limit Russia's ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds and yen, said President Biden. But a striking omission was inclusion of the Swift international payments system in the sanctions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suggested on Thursday that this option should be kept for later, while Mr Biden said Swift "is always an option, but right now that's not the position the rest of Europe wishes to take".

On sanctioning Mr Putin directly, Mr Biden demurred. But such a move would be largely symbolic, since there is not much information about the Russian leader's wealth. Officially, he owns three cars and an apartment and his annual income is about 10 million rubles (S$163,500).

Russia will also be cut off from importing certain types of US-made technology. According to the White House, the restrictions include semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, navigation and maritime technologies.

However, Moscow seems to have factored in the Western sanctions before embarking on what Mr Putin described as a "special military operation".

It still has about US$300 billion (S$406 billion) of foreign currency held offshore, enough to disrupt money markets if frozen by sanctions or moved suddenly to avoid them, reported Bloomberg, citing Credit Suisse Group strategist Zoltan Pozsar's calculations.

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Mr Putin appears to believe Russia will not be cut off by the West, in part, given its status as Europe's largest energy supplier.

At a meeting with billionaires and heads of major Russian businesses on Thursday, he said Russia remains part of the world economy and "for as long as it remains a part, we are not going to damage the system in which we feel we're involved".

"Our partners should understand this and not set themselves the task of pushing us out of this system," he added.

He also urged Russian businesses to work with the government against the impact of international sanctions, saying he was obliged to invade Ukraine because the West had not "given a millimetre" in response to Russia's demands for security guarantees.

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