Russian forces close in on Kyiv on eve of talks
Russian troops closed in on Ukraine’s capital Wednesday as the two countries prepared for their first high-level talks since Moscow launched its deadly invasion two weeks ago.
As fighting raged for the 14th day, Russian forces made rapid advances towards Kyiv, approaching Brovary, a large eastern suburb of the capital, AFP journalists saw.
“The columns of Russian tanks yesterday took two villages a few kilometres away,” said Volodymyr, a 41-year-old resident of Velyka Dymerka, about 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Brovary.
“They shoot to scare people and force them to stay at home, steal what they can to get supplies and settle among the inhabitants so that the Ukrainian forces do not bomb them.”
Fighting has intensified in the area, with Ukrainian forces trying to repel the Russian tanks, local residents and volunteers of the Ukrainian forces told AFP.
– US deploys hardware to Poland –
The United States said Wednesday it was redeploying two anti-aircraft batteries from Germany to Ukraine’s neighbour Poland, a Pentagon official said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier urged Western powers to decide on a Polish offer to supply his country with fighter jets, after Washington rejected an initial plan as unviable.
“We ask you again to decide as soon as possible. Send us planes,” he said.
Russia’s war has sent around 2.2 million refugees across Ukraine’s borders in what the UN has called Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II and sparked fears of a wider conflict.
Fears are mounting that Russia will encircle Kyiv, where an orchestra on Wednesday performed in the city’s Maidan Square in a morale-boosting concert that included the EU anthem “Ode to Joy”.
– Evacuation truce –
Elsewhere, Russia and Ukraine had agreed to open more humanitarian corridors on Wednesday to evacuate terrified civilians from bombarded cities.
Safe routes were opening out of five Ukrainian areas including suburbs of the capital Kyiv that have been devastated by Russian shelling and airstrikes.
Moscow had vowed to respect a 12-hour truce starting at 9:00 am to allow civilians to flee six areas that have been heavily hit by the fighting, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
For the first time, the corridors included Irpin, Bucha and Gostomel, a cluster of towns on the northwestern outskirts of Kyiv that have been largely occupied by Russian forces.
A corridor was also agreed for the port town of Mariupol, where several previous evacuations have failed, leaving thousands of people without water or power since Friday.
Violence raged in other areas, with 17 staff wounded by an airstrike on a children’s hospital in the eastern city of Mariupol, an official said.
On Tuesday at least 10 people were killed in a Russian military attack on homes and other buildings in the eastern Ukrainian town of Severodonestk, a local official for the Lugansk region said in a statement on Telegram.
– Chernobyl ‘fully disconnected’ –
The invasion has raised nuclear concerns, with Ukraine saying on Wednesday that power has been cut to Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, which has been seized by Russian forces.
The defunct plant, housing decommissioned reactors and radioactive waste facilities seized by Russia at the start of the war, “was fully disconnected from the power grid”, Ukraine’s energy operator Ukrenergo said.
The UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that while the development violated a “key safety pillar”, it saw “no critical impact on safety” at Chernobyl.
Russia also attacked and seized Europe’s largest atomic power plant, Zaporizhzhia, last week, drawing accusations of “nuclear terror” from Kyiv.
– ‘Economic war on Russia’ –
Western allies have hit Russia with unprecedented sanctions, with the US on Tuesday announcing restrictions on the oil imports that help bankroll Moscow’s war machine.
The spike in energy prices caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine will produce effects comparable to the 1973 oil shock, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warned.
The EU on Wednesday agreed to add more Russian oligarchs to the sanctions blacklist and to cut three Belarusian banks from the global SWIFT payments system over Minsk’s support for the Kremlin’s attack.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called on the entire G7 grouping to ban Russian oil imports.
A corporate boycott grew too, with Dutch brewery Heineken and Universal Music joining McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Starbucks among the big brands to suspend business in Russia.
The Kremlin, scrambling to impose measures to limit the economic fallout, hit back by accusing the US of having “declared economic war on Russia”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed the “neutralisation” and “denazification” of pro-Western Ukraine and raised Russia’s nuclear alert.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that “some progress has been made” in three rounds of negotiations with officials from Kyiv, adding that Moscow’s troops were not trying to “overthrow” the Ukrainian government.
– No no-fly zone –
Western governments have baulked at the Ukranian president’s calls for a no-fly zone to defend Ukraine’s skies, fearing it would trigger a conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.
“The prospect of fighter jets… departing from a US/NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” spokesman John Kirby said.
The West has instead relied on funnelling weapons and aid into Ukraine.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said Wednesday that his country had delivered 3,615 NLAW anti-tank weapons, and would shortly start shipping a “small consignment” of Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country will send an additional $50 million worth of military equipment to help Ukraine.
– Talks on Thursday –
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba were set to hold face-to-face talks in southern Turkey Thursday — their first such meeting since the invasion.
Kuleba confirmed in a video on Facebook he was preparing to meet Lavrov on Thursday, warning that his expectations were “limited”.