Ukrainian soldiers have repulsed a Russian attack in the capital, the army said early Saturday, just hours after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Moscow would try to take Kiev before dawn.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin unleashed a large-scale invasion on Thursday that killed dozens of people, forced more than 50,000 to flee Ukraine in just 48 hours and sparked fears of a new Cold War in Europe.
Western countries announced personal sanctions against Putin when his soldiers marched into Ukraine on Friday, with Zelenskyy urging the nation to defend itself.
“This night will be harder than the day. Many cities of our state are under attack,” Zelenskyy had said.
“Special attention to Kiev – we can not lose the capital,” he said in an earlier speech.
“I turn to our defenders, men and women, on all fronts: this night the enemy will use all the powers they have to crush our defenses in a treacherous, harsh and inhumane way,” he said.
“Tonight they will attempt a storming of the capital,” he added in a clear reference to Kiev.
Zelenskyy, who previously called for a stronger response from the West, said he spoke with leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden.
“We have agreed on more aid, more aid, significant support for our state,” he said.
‘Point of no return’ –
The United States, Canada, Great Britain and the European Union announced further sanctions against Russia on Friday, including against Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia said the sanctions against the pair were “a demonstration of the West’s complete foreign policy impotence”.
“We have reached the border and the point of no return begins,” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Moscow also – as expected – vetoed a UN Security Council resolution deploring the Russian invasion “in the strongest terms”, while China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained.
Putin had previously described the Ukrainian government as “terrorists” and “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” and urged the country’s military to overthrow Zelensky.
The Ukrainian leader responded by promising to stay and defend the capital.
‘We’re all here. Our army is here. Citizens in society are here. We are all here to defend our independence, our country and will continue to be,” Zelensky said in the self-shot video from Kiev.
NATO’s US-led military alliance said it is deploying its rapid reaction forces for the first time to bolster defenses on the alliance’s eastern flank.
Body on the sidewalk –
Early on Saturday, the Ukrainian military said on its verified Facebook page that Russia “attacked one of the military units on Victory Avenue in Kiev. The attack was repulsed”, without specifying where exactly the incident took place.
An AFP journalist said loud explosions were heard early on Saturday in central Kiev.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense ministry said early Saturday that “two enemy targets were shot down” — identifying them as a Russian SU-25 helicopter and a military bomber — near the separatist zone to the east.
A Russian transport plane was also “downed” near the town of Vasylkiv, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Kiev, the ministry added on its official Facebook page.
Previously, firearms and explosions could be heard in the northern district of the capital, Obolonsky, when what appeared to be a vanguard of the Russian invasion force left a trail of destruction.
AFP saw a dead man in plain clothes sprawled on the sidewalk as nearby medics rushed to help another man whose car was crushed by an armored vehicle.
In the city center, soldiers manned the intersections around the government district.
Kiev said 137 people, including soldiers and civilians, were killed.
Ukrainian troops reported fighting with Russian armored units at two locations between 40-80 kilometers north of Kiev.
Ukraine’s defense ministry urged civilians to “inform us about troop movements, make Molotov cocktails and neutralize the enemy”.
The ministry said 2,800 Russian soldiers had been killed, without providing evidence. Moscow has yet to report any casualties.
‘No real diplomacy’ –
Lavrov said Moscow was ready to talk, but only if the Ukrainian armed forces “put down their arms”, adding that “no one intends to occupy Ukraine”.
A Kremlin spokesman said Putin was willing to send a delegation to the Belarusian capital Minsk “for talks with a Ukrainian delegation”.
But the US quickly turned down the offer.
After we invaded Ukraine, “we now see Moscow suggesting that diplomacy takes place with the barrel of a gun. This is not real diplomacy,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
The UN said more than 50,000 Ukrainians had fled the country in the past two days and called for “secure unobstructed access” for relief operations.
Streams of people in cars and on foot were seen entering Hungary, Poland and Romania, while hundreds camped at a train station in the Polish border town of Przemysl.
It is believed that about 100,000 people are internally displaced, and in Kiev many residents fled their homes and sought shelter in the city’s metro system.
‘Hardest’ EU sanctions –
The EU on Friday added Putin and Lavrov to the bloc’s list of sanctions, in what foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the “toughest” package ever drafted by the bloc.
The British government soon followed suit and ordered that all assets of both men be frozen.
The United States and Canada will also impose sanctions on the couple, with Washington including a travel ban.
Despite Zelensky calling on Western allies to expel Moscow from the SWIFT bank transfer system, many EU countries, including Germany, Hungary and Italy, have been hesitant over fears that Russia could cut gas supplies.
by Dave CLARK and Dmytro GORSHKOV