NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Invading Russian forces closed in on Ukraine’s capital Friday, in an apparent encircling movement after a barrage of airstrikes on cities and military bases around the country. With growing signs that Russia aims to overthrow him, […]
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NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Invading Russian forces closed in on Ukraine’s capital Friday, in an apparent encircling movement after a barrage of airstrikes on cities and military bases around the country.
With growing signs that Russia aims to overthrow him, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told European Union leaders in a video link-up from his bunker late Thursday that it might be the last time they saw him alive.
But on Friday Zelenskyy released a video of himself and his senior aides outside the presidential office in Kyiv to reassure Ukrainians that he and other top officials would stay in the capital.
He later appealed for a cease-fire and warned in a bleak statement that multiple cities were under attack. “This night they will storm,” he said.
The assault, anticipated for weeks by the West, amounts to Europe’s largest ground conflict since World War II as President Vladimir Putin tries to restore Moscow’s Cold War influence. It is unclear how much or little Russian forces have seized or the extent of the casualties.
U.S. President Joe Biden and his NATO partners agreed Friday to send thousands of troops to help protect allies along the alliance’s eastern edge. Biden spoke later with Zelenskyy to convey his support and “commended the brave actions of the Ukrainian people who were fighting to defend their country,” the White House said.
Here are the things to know about the conflict and the security crisis in former Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe:
RUSSIAN TROOPS MARCH ON
The Russian military said Friday it had encircled the cities of Sumy and Konotop in northeastern Ukraine, but was “taking steps to ensure civilians’ safety.”
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces have so far knocked out 211 Ukrainian military installations, including 17 command centers, 19 air defense missile systems, 39 radar units, 67 tanks and six warplanes. The Russian military also said it seized a strategic airport outside Kyiv, allowing it to quickly build up forces to take the capital.
Late Friday, the Russian military said it has taken over Melitopol, a city near the Azov Sea. The claim could not immediately be independently verified.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. defense official said it’s estimated that Russia has now launched more than 200 missiles into Ukraine and some have hit residential areas, although it was unclear if they were deliberately targeted.
But U.S. defense officials believe the Russian offensive has encountered considerable resistance and is proceeding slower than Moscow had envisioned.
Ukraine’s military reported shooting down an II-76 Russian transport plane carrying paratroopers near Vasylkiv, a city 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Kyiv, an account confirmed by a senior American intelligence official. It was unclear how many were on board. Transport planes can carry up to 125 paratroopers.
HINTS OF TALKS TO STOP THE FIGHTING
Hopes for a negotiated end to the war dimmed on Friday after a tentative agreement to discuss Zelenskyy’s offer to designate Ukraine a non-aligned country appeared to break down.
The Kremlin initially said it was ready to send a delegation to Belarus, then later backpedaled, saying it preferred to meet in Warsaw. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested it was too late, saying Zelenskyy should have agreed to talks earlier on.
But late Friday, Zelenskyy’s spokesman Sergii Nikiforov wrote on Facebook that the two sides are consulting on a place and time for the talks.
Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, offered Budapest as a possible location. Also writing on Facebook, he said he put the proposal to both Russia’s and Ukraine’s government and neither dismissed it.
Before the invasion, the West had rejected Russia’s demand to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Putin used the refusal to justify the invasion, claiming that the West left him no other choice.
CIVILIANS IN HARM’S WAY
Waking to the second day of Russia’s invasion, horrified civilians found themselves at risk as artillery shells rained down on some residential buildings on Kyiv’s outskirts.
City residents stood uneasily in doorways of apartment buildings watching armored personnel carriers driving down the streets.
After 8 p.m., a large boom was heard near Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square in central Kyiv. And the mayor said five explosions struck near a major power plant just outside the city. The causes of the explosions was not immediately known.
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said its staffers have so far verified at least 25 civilian deaths and 102 injured, mostly from shelling and airstrikes.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, Shabia Mantoo, said more than 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes in Ukraine and that “up to 4 million people may flee to other countries if the situation escalates.”
FLEEING FOR SAFETY
Thousands of Ukrainians crossed Friday into neighboring countries to the west in search of safety from the unfolding war in their country.
With men of military age banned from leaving the country, most of those who crossed borders were women, children and the elderly.
One woman from Kyiv who arrived in Przemsyl, Poland, described how men were pulled off trains in Ukraine before they got to the border.
Cars were backed up for several miles at some border crossings as authorities in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova mobilized to receive the Ukrainians, providing shelter, food and legal help. These countries also eased their usual border procedures, including COVID-19 testing requirements.
POPE’S PERSONAL APPEAL FOR PEACE
The pope broke protocol with an in-person visit Friday to the Russian Embassy to “express his concern about the war” in Ukraine.
Pope Francis’ extraordinary gesture was viewed as a sign of his anger at Russia’s actions, and his willingness to make a personal appeal for the end of hostilities.
The pope traveled to and from the embassy in a small white car, with Vatican officials saying they knew of no such previous papal initiative.
NUCLEAR WAR NIGHTMARE REVISITED
Reviving Cold War fears of a nuclear showdown, Putin has warned in a speech that he has the weapons available if anyone dares to use military means to try to stop his takeover of Ukraine.
Whether an empty threat or not, Putin’s words re-animated the specter of nuclear war — through accident or miscalculation.
The Russian president said in a speech early Thursday that despite “losing a considerable part of its capabilities after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Russia remains “one of the most powerful nuclear states” and has “a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons.”
PROMISES OF MONEY FOR UKRAINE
The United Nations plans to seek over $1 billion in donations for humanitarian relief in Ukraine over the next three months, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Friday.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU has decided on an “unprecedented” 1.5 billion euros ($1.68 billion) in economic aid for Ukraine.
TURNING THE SCREWS ON RUSSIA
The West has taken a military option in Ukraine off the table, but world leaders — with the exception of Moscow ally China — are preparing measures aimed at hurting the Russian economy and its leaders, including Putin himself.
The U.S., Britain, Canada and European Union said Friday they will sanction Putin and Lavrov, his foreign minister. The EU unanimously agreed to freeze their assets.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated the U.S. sanctions will include a travel ban.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the sanctions showed the “total helplessness” of the West. “Who are you going to talk to? … A nuclear power, a great country; who have you decided to play with?” Zakharova said in televised remarks.
EU ministers have said that even further sanctions were still possible, including booting Russia out of SWIFT, the dominant system for global financial transactions.
Asian and Pacific countries have joined the West in taking punitive measures against Russia, including export controls aimed at starving its industries and military of semiconductors and other high-tech products.
In retaliation to a British ban on Aeroflot flights, Russia’s civil aviation authority forbade U.K. flights to and over Russia starting Friday.
Canada’s largest province is pulling all Russian vodka from government-owned liquor stores, Ontario’s finance minister said. Quebec is considering a ban on Russian liquor.
The Council of Europe also suspended Russia from the continent’s foremost human rights organization.
And in pop culture, the wildly popular Eurovision song contest also banned Russia from the May finals in Turin, Italy.
SPORTING WORLD TURNS ITS BACK
Russia has been stripped of hosting the Champions League final by UEFA w ith St. Petersburg replaced by Paris, and Formula One dropped this season’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi in September
The showpiece final in the European men’s football season will still be held on May 28 but at the 80,000-seat Stade de France.
The International Ski Federation announced Russia will not host any more of its World Cup events this winter, and the European curling championships scheduled to be held in November in Perm, Russia, will also be relocated, the sport’s international governing body announced on Friday.
The International Tennis Federation also canceled all events taking place in Russia indefinitely.
Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the tensions between Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Menelaos Hadjicostis, The Associated Press