An embattled Ukraine has moved to solidify its bond with the West on by applying to join the European Union, while the first round of Ukraine-Russia talks aimed at ending the fighting concluded with no deal but an agreement to keep talking.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted photos of himself signing the EU application, a largely symbolic move for now that could take years to become reality and is unlikely to sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit.
Russian and Ukrainian officials held their meeting on Day Five of the war under the shadow of Putin’s nuclear threats, and with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine running into unexpectedly fierce resistance and Western sanctions beginning to wreak havoc on the economy at home.
A top Zelenskyy adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the the talks, held near the Ukraine-Belarus border, were focused on a possible cease-fire and that a second round could take place “in the near future.”
A top Putin aide and head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said that the discussions lasted nearly five hours and that the envoys “found certain points on which common positions could be foreseen.” He said they agreed to continue the talks in the coming days.
As the discussions wrapped up, several blasts could be heard in Kyiv, though no details were immediately known. Russian troops, who are attacking Ukraine on multiple fronts, were advancing slowly on the capital city of 3 nearly million people and were about 25km from the city centre, according to a senior US defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments.
Meanwhile, social media video from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, showed residential areas being shelled, with apartment buildings shaken by repeated, powerful blasts. Authorities in Kharkiv said at least seven people had been killed and dozens injured. They warned that casualties could be far higher.
The Russian military has denied targeting residential areas despite abundant evidence of shelling of homes, schools and hospitals
Exact death tolls are unclear, but the UN human rights chief said 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in five days of fighting — warning that figure was likely a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead.
More than 500,000 people have fled the country since the invasion, another UN official said Monday — among millions who have left their homes.
But while Ukraine sent its defence minister and other top officials, the Russian delegation was led by Putin’s adviser on culture — an unlikely envoy for ending the war and a sign of how Moscow views the talks.
While they hope to curb Putin’s aggression, the measures also risked pushing an increasingly cornered Putin closer to the edge — and inflicted pain on ordinary Russians.
In Moscow, Russians lined up on Monday to withdraw cash as Western sanctions threatened their livelihoods and savings.
In Kyiv, Ukrainians lined up to buy food and water after two nights trapped inside by curfew.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Putin is seeking in the talks, or from the war itself.
Western officials believe Putin wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
He also pointed at “aggressive statements” by NATO, a reference to his long-held stance that the US-led alliance is an existential threat to Russia.
On Monday, the Defence Ministry said extra personnel were deployed to Russian nuclear forces, and that the high alert status applies to all their components: the forces that oversee land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the fleet of nuclear-capable strategic bombers.
It was not immediately clear whether the Kremlin announcement means any nuclear-armed aircraft could already be in the air around Ukraine.
But the move is a clear escalation.
While Russia and the United States typically have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces that are prepared for combat at all times, nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.
US and British officials played down Putin’s nuclear threat as posturing.
But for many, they stirred up memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and concerns that the West could be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia.
Putin also stepped up his rhetoric on Monday, denouncing the US and its allies as an “empire of lies.”
He described Western allies as US “satellites which humbly fawn on it, kowtow to it, copy its conduct and joyfully accept the rules.”
In another possible escalation, neighbouring Belarus could send troops to help Russia as soon as Monday, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of current US intelligence assessments.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly.
US officials say they believe the invasion has been more difficult, and slower, than the Kremlin envisioned, though that could change as Moscow adapts.
Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov, is “hanging on,” said Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich.
An oil depot was reportedly bombed in the eastern city of Sumy.
Ukrainian protesters demonstrated against encroaching Russian troops in the port of Berdyansk.
In a war being waged both on the ground and online, cyberattacks hit Ukrainian embassies around the world, and Russian media.
Western nations ramped up the pressure with a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves, threatening to bring Russia’s economy to its knees.
Russians withdrew savings and sought to shed rubles for dollars and euros, while Russian businesses scrambled to protect their finances.
The US, European Union and Britain also agreed to block selected Russian banks from the SWIFT system, which facilitates moving money around thousands of banks and other financial institutions worldwide.
In addition to sanctions, the US and Germany announced they will send Stinger missiles to Ukraine among other military supplies.
The European Union — founded to ensure peace on the continent after World War II — is supplying lethal aid for the first time, including anti-tank weapons and ammunition.
At least one Western country is studying a request from Ukraine to provide fighter jets, a European official said.
She spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not yet public.
EU defence ministers were to meet on Monday to discuss how to get the pledged weaponry into Ukraine.
A trainload of Czech equipment arrived on Sunday and another was en route on Monday, though blocking off such shipments will clearly be a key Russian priority.
It remains to be seen how much the weaponry will help Ukraine fend off Russia’s vastly greater arsenal.
In New York, the 193-member UN General Assembly scheduled an emergency session Monday on Russia’s invasion.
With the Ukrainian capital besieged, the Russian military offered to allow residents to leave Kyiv via a safe corridor.
The mayor of the city of nearly three million had earlier expressed doubt that civilians could be evacuated.
Ukrainian authorities have been handing out weapons to anyone willing to defend the city.
Ukraine is also releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight, and training people to make firebombs.
In Mariupol, where Ukrainians were trying to fend off attack, a medical team at a city hospital desperately tried to revive a six-year-old girl in unicorn pyjamas who was mortally wounded in Russian shelling.
During the rescue attempt, a doctor in blue medical scrubs, pumping oxygen into the girl, looked directly into the Associated Press video camera capturing the scene.
“Show this to Putin,” he said angrily.
“The eyes of this child, and crying doctors.”
Their resuscitation efforts failed, and the girl lay dead on a gurney, covered by her blood-splattered jacket.
Nearly 900km away, Faina Bystritska was under threat in the city of Chernihiv.
“I wish I had never lived to see this,” said Bystritska, an 87-year-old Jewish survivor of World War II.