Ceasefire talks underway at Belarus border as Ukraine demands Russia withdraw troops

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MOSCOW (REUTERS, AFP) - Ceasefire talks were underway between Ukraine and Russia on the Belarusian border on Monday (Feb 28), the fifth day of the Kremlin's offensive against the country, with the Russian foreign ministry publishing photos of the delegations sitting opposite each other at a long table. 

Russia’s defence ministry said its nuclear missile forces and Northern and Pacific fleets had been placed on enhanced combat duty in line with an order the previous day from President Vladimir Putin. 

In a statement ahead of the talks earlier in the day, the Ukrainian presidency said its delegation would demand an immediate ceasefire from Russia. 

“The key issue of the talks is an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops from Ukraine," the Ukrainian presidency said.

The Ukraine delegation includes Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov and Deputy Foreign Minister Mykola Tochytskyi.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin and Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov are also among those there.

China called for restraint, asking both sides to "remain calm and exercise restraint to prevent further escalation of the situation", Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday. 

Ukraine’s president Volodymr Zelensky has urged Russian soldiers to lay down their weapons and desert.  

“Abandon your equipment. Get out of here. Don’t believe your commanders. Don’t believe your propagandists. Just save your lives,” Mr Zelensky said in a new address to Russia’s forces, claiming that more than 4,500 Russian soldiers had already lost their lives during the Kremlin’s assault.

He also urged the European Union to grant his country “immediate” membership under a special procedure immediately as it defends itself from invasion by Russian forces.  

“We appeal to the European Union for the immediate accession of 
Ukraine via a new special procedure,” the 44-year-old leader said in a video speech shared on social media. “Our goal is to be with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be equal. I’m sure that’s fair. I am sure we deserve it." 

He said 16 children had died during the first four days of Moscow’s assault and another 45 were wounded as he hailed “Ukrainian heroes”.

The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday that at least 102 civilians, including seven children, had been killed but warned the real numbers were probably far higher.  

“Ukrainians have shown the world who we are. And Russia has shown what it has become,” Mr Zelensky said.  

The Ukrainian leader – a former comedian who came to power in 2019 – released his latest video statement as Russian and Ukrainian negotiators prepared to sit down for their first face-to-face talks since Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered troops to invade last Thursday.

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The negotiations with Moscow, which Ukraine said would be without preconditions, are being held at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

Russian invasion forces seized two small cities in south-eastern Ukraine and the area around a nuclear power plant, the Interfax news agency reported on Monday, but ran into stiff resistance elsewhere as Moscow’s diplomatic and economic isolation deepened. 

Having launched the biggest assault on a European state since World War Two, President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert on Sunday in the face of a barrage of Western-led reprisals for his war on Ukraine. 

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Blasts were heard before dawn on Monday in the capital of Kyiv and in the major city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian authorities said. But Russian ground forces’ attempts to capture major urban centres had been repelled, they added.

Russia’s defence ministry, however, said its forces had taken the towns of Berdyansk and Enerhodar in Ukraine’s south-eastern Zaporizhzhya region as well as the area around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Interfax reported. The plant’s operations continued normally, it said. 

Ukraine denied that the nuclear plant had fallen into Russian hands, according to the news agency. 

As Western governments mustered more support for sanctions against Moscow, diplomatic manoeuvring continued with the Vatican joining efforts to end the conflict by offering to “facilitate dialogue” between Russia and Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden will host a call with allies and partners on Monday to coordinate a united response, the White House said.

The United States said Mr Putin was escalating the war with "dangerous rhetoric" about Russia's nuclear posture, amid signs Russian forces were preparing to besiege major cities in the democratic country of about 44 million people.

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A senior US defence official said Russia had fired more than 350 missiles at Ukrainian targets so far, some hitting civilian infrastructure.

"It appears that they are adopting a siege mentality, which any student of military tactics and strategy will tell you, when you adopt siege tactics, it increases the likelihood of collateral damage," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mr Zelensky told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by telephone on Sunday that the next 24 hours would be crucial for Ukraine, a Downing Street spokesperson said.

So far, the Russian offensive cannot claim any major victories. Russian has not taken any Ukrainian city, does not control Ukraine's airspace, and its troops remained roughly 30km from Kyiv's city centre for a second day, the official said.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation" that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

Ukrainian Military Forces walk in the small town of Severodonetsk, Donetsk Region on Feb 27, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Unprecedented sanctions

Western-led political, strategic, economic and corporate sanctions were unprecedented in their extent and coordination, and there were further pledges of military support for Ukraine's badly outgunned armed forces.

The rouble plunged nearly 30 per cent to an all-time low versus the dollar, after Western nations on Saturday unveiled harsh sanctions including blocking some Russian banks from the Swift international payments system.

Japan and South Korea said they would join in the action to block some banks from Swift. South Korea, a major exporter of semiconductors, would also ban exports of strategic items to Russia.

Singapore, a financial and shipping hub, said it intended to impose sanctions and restrictions on Russia, The Straits Times reported.

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Japan said was also considering imposing sanctions against some individuals in Belarus, a key staging area for the Russian invasion.

A referendum in Belarus on Sunday approved a new constitution ditching the country's non-nuclear status.

Several European subsidiaries of Sberbank Russia, majority owned by the Russian government, were failing or were likely to fail due to reputational cost of the war in Ukraine, the European Central Bank said.

Russia's central bank scrambled to manage the broadening fallout of the sanctions saying it would resume buying gold on the domestic market, launch a repurchase auction with no limits and ease restrictions on banks' open foreign currency positions.

It also ordered brokers to block attempt by foreigners to sell Russian securities.

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That could complicate plans by the sovereign wealth funds of Norway and Australia, which said they planned to wind down their exposure to Russian-listed companies.

Corporate giants also took action, with British oil major BP, the biggest foreign investor in Russia, saying it would abandon its stake in state oil company Rosneft at a cost of up to US$25 billion (S$34 billion).

The European Union on Sunday decided for the first time in its history to supply weapons to a country at war, pledging arms including fighter jets to Ukraine.

Germany, which had already frozen a planned undersea gas pipeline from Russia, said it would increase defence spending massively, casting off decades of reluctance to match its economic power with military clout.

EU Chief Executive Ursula von der Leyen expressed support for Ukraine's membership in an interview with Euronews, saying"they are one of us".

The EU shut all Russian planes out of its airspace, as did Canada, forcing Russian airline Aeroflot to cancel all flights to European destinations until further notice. The United States and France urged their citizens to consider leaving Russia immediately.

The EU also banned the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik.

In New York, the UN Security Council convened a rare emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly, or all the United Nations' 193 member states, for Monday.

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Rolling protests have been held around the world against the invasion, including in Russia, where almost 6,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests since Thursday, the OVD-Info protest monitor said.

Tens of thousands of people across Europe marched in protest, including more than 100,000 in Berlin.

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Meta Platforms said it had removed a network of about 40 fake accounts, groups and pages across Facebook and Instagram that operated from Russia and Ukraine targeting public figures in Ukraine, for violating its rules against coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Twitter said it had also suspended more than a dozen accounts and blocked the sharing of several links for violating its rules against platform manipulation and spam.

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