With Western powers preparing to fast-track arms shipments to Ukraine and initiate a no-holds-barred push to punish Moscow both diplomatically and financially, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to negotiations with Russia on Sunday “without preconditions.”
The prospect of talks dangled — however improbably — the hope of a resolution of the colossal crisis, heightened further Sunday when President Vladimir Putin of Russia placed his nuclear forces on high alert even as his invading troops bore down on Kyiv and continued their thrusts toward a number of cities across Ukraine.
On Monday morning, a Ukrainian delegation arrived at the border with Belarus, near the Pripyat River, to meet with its Russian counterparts.
On Sunday, an aide to Putin and the head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, had set a 3 p.m. deadline for Ukraine to join negotiations, saying that rejecting the proposal would put “all responsibility for the bloodshed” on the Ukrainian side, according to a report from Russian state news outlet RIA. Confirmation of the Ukrainians’ participation was received moments before the deadline ran out, Medinsky later said.
“For our part, we guarantee 100% safety of the route, passage, and we will wait at this place for a delegation of the Ukrainian administration.”
Zelensky had rejected an earlier call for negotiations in Belarus, saying that holding talks there — as per Moscow’s demand — was untenable when Belarusian territory was being used as a staging ground for the unprovoked Russian invasion. “Of course, we want peace, we want to meet, we want for the war to end,” Zelensky said earlier. “Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul, Baku — we have suggested all that to Russia.”
The backdrop to negotiations is a furious international response against Russia’s campaign — which Moscow insists on calling a “special military operation” — but which has been widely condemned as an unjustified invasion — that continued to spiral on Sunday.
The U.N. Security Council voted for the General Assembly, comprising the U.N.’s 193 member states, to convene in a rare emergency session on Monday morning to discuss Russia’s invasion.
The vote — which had three abstentions from China, India and the United Arab Emirates, Russia opposed and 11 in support — is procedural, meaning that Russia could not veto its passing. It has been employed rarely, but is meant to be used when the five permanent members of the Security Council cannot come to unanimous agreement.
The meeting grants all member states the opportunity to comment on the Russian offensive. It followed an unprecedented move by the European Union to “finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” said European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen in a televised address.
“This is a watershed moment,” she said. Standing beside her, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, doubled down on her words.
“Another taboo has fallen,” he said. “The taboo that the EU was not providing arms in a war, yes, we are doing it. … This war requires our engagement in order to support the Ukrainian army.”
The EU said it would provide almost $600 million in lethal arms and nonlethal supplies. Canada also said it would send tens of millions of dollars in helmets, night-vision gear and body armor to Kyiv.
“And let me be clear,” said Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly according to media reports. “We will send more.”
Putin, meanwhile, pushed tensions even higher when he ordered the Russian army’s nuclear deterrence forces on combat alert. Putin said he was giving the order because “top officials in NATO’s leading countries have been making aggressive statements against our country,” according to a report from Russian state news agency Tass.
A senior U.S. Defense official, responding to those reports on Sunday morning, said: “We have no reason to doubt the validity of this order. But how it manifested itself, I don’t think is completely clear yet.
“We believe,” the official added, “that this is not only an unnecessary step for [Putin] to take, but an escalatory one — unnecessary because Russia has never been under threat by the West or by NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], and certainly wasn’t under any threat by Ukraine, and escalatory because it’s clearly potentially putting at play forces that if there’s a miscalculation could make things much, much more dangerous.”
Still, word of pending negotiations gives a glimmer of hope of a cessation of hostilities even as the fourth day of fighting brought fierce battles on the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. There were also reports that Russian missiles struck a gas pipeline.
“The Russian enemy’s light vehicles have broken into Kharkiv, including the city centre,” regional Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said in a Facebook post. “Ukraine’s armed forces are destroying the enemy. We ask civilians not to go out to the streets.”
Kharkiv is about 24 miles from Ukraine’s northern frontier with Russia, making it an essential target for an incursion. But combat in tight urban settings — the city has a population of approximately 1.4 million — is likely to result in a high number of casualties.
On Saturday, an artillery round hit a nine-story residential building in the city. One person was killed and 80 were rescued. As of Saturday afternoon, there were 240 civilian casualties, including 64 dead, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said Sunday that 352 were killed since the invasion began, 14 of them children.
The violence has forced an exodus of some 368,000 people to neighboring European countries, the United Nations’ refugee agency said Sunday, more than double the figure mentioned earlier in the weekend. Governments estimate the war could cause as many as 5 million Ukrainians to flee.
There was also significant damage to infrastructure across the nation. Outside Kyiv, Russian bombardment hit an oil depot in the town of Vasylkiv, some 20 miles to the southwest. Video posted by Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection showed a ferocious blaze and a large plume of smoke rising into the night sky above the depot.
“The enemy wants to destroy everything,” Vasylkiv Mayor Natalia Balasinovich said in a Facebook post.
Russia’s invading forces have also suffered losses. Though yet to have deployed en masse in cities, the Russian military has faced stiff resistance from Ukrainian troops and from residents armed with rifles and homemade bombs who are furious that a people they once considered brothers are now seeking to overrun their homeland. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, acknowledged for the first time Sunday that there were dead and wounded among Russian servicemen.
He added during a news briefing that since the start of the operation, 1,067 military infrastructure facilities in Ukraine had been struck and that the Russian army had recorded and identified Ukrainian leaders involved in the “abuse of our comrades.”
“All of you will be found and will inevitably bear severe responsibility,” he said.
Earlier, he said the cities of Kherson and Berdyansk in Ukraine “were completely blocked” by Russian forces. The information could not be verified.
In Kyiv, a capital of roughly 3 million, residents hunkered down and waited for the negotiations as Russian troops encircled the city. With the mayor having declared a curfew until Monday morning, only the booms of explosions and the crackle of gunfire broke the silence.
The pending negotiations may offer an offramp for a Russian president facing an increasingly punitive resistance against him, internationally but also in Ukraine.
However, the tone of Konashenkov’s remarks implied that, should negotiations fail, Putin may be prepared to inflict a higher death toll.
As well, Ramzan Kadyrov, a top Putin ally who heads Russia’s Chechnya region, said Sunday that Russian forces had so far been “coddling” their Ukrainian adversaries.
“The time has come to make a concrete decision and start a large-scale operation in all directions and on the territory of Ukraine,” he said.
“In my understanding, the chosen tactics in Ukraine are too slow. It takes a long time and, in my opinion, is not effective.”
As residents of Kyiv and elsewhere waited to see whether negotiations will prove fruitful or if a no-holds-barred onslaught will turn their cities into battlegrounds, the EU, U.S. and others continued to seek to punish Russia as a means of attempting to convince Putin to end the incursion.
In addition to earlier sanctions, the European Union on Sunday banned all Russian-owned, Russian-registered or Russian-controlled aircraft from its airspace, said European Commission head Von der Leyen in a televised address. Previously, many individual governments had announced such prohibitions. The move means that planes cannot land, take off or even fly over European nations, forcing them to take different routes to reach their destinations.
Von der Leyen also struck out at Russia Today and Sputnik, two state-sponsored outlets that broadcast in Europe as well as on social media channels such as YouTube.
“We are developing tools to ban that toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe,” Von der Leyen said.
Even the International Judo Federation took a stand, suspending Putin’s status as honorary president and ambassador for the group “in light of the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine.” That followed other steps that have in effect sidelined Russia as a sporting destination and competitor, including the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix slated to be held in the city of Sochi in September, and Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic refusing to play Russia in soccer World Cup playoffs.
On Saturday, the Biden administration joined a raft of European allies in agreeing to disconnect a number of Russian banks from SWIFT, the messaging system used by financial institutions for facilitating transactions worldwide.
In a statement provided by Tass, the Russian central bank countered that it “has the necessary resources and tools to maintain financial stability and ensure the operational continuity of the financial sector.
“All customer funds on the accounts are saved and available at any time. Banking services are provided as usual. Bank cards of all banks in Russia also continue to work normally.”
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