Ukraine talks yield no breakthrough as Russians close in
Published 1:16 pm Monday, February 28, 2022
KYIV, Ukraine — The first round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting between Ukraine and Russia ended Monday with no agreement except to keep talking, while an increasingly isolated Moscow ran into unexpectedly fierce resistance on the ground and economic havoc at home.
Five days into Russia’s invasion, the Kremlin again raised the specter of nuclear war, while an embattled Ukraine moved to solidify its ties to the West by applying to join the European Union — a largely symbolic move unlikely to sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the U.S. of trying to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit.
A top Putin aide and head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said that the talks 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 discussions in the coming days.
As the talks wrapped up, several blasts could be heard in Kyiv, though few details were immediately known. Russian troops, who are attacking Ukraine on multiple fronts, have been advancing slowly on the capital city of 3 nearly million people.
On Monday, a 17-mile (25-kilometer) convoy consisting of hundreds of armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and support vehicles was just 17 miles (25 kilometers) from the center of Kyiv, according to satellite imagery from the Maxar company.
The images also captured signs of fighting outside Kyiv, including destroyed vehicles and a damaged bridge.
Messages aimed at the advancing Russian soldiers popped up on billboards, bus stops and electronic traffic signs across the capital. Some used profanity to encourage Russians to leave. Others appealed to their humanity.
“Russian soldier — Stop! Remember your family. Go home with a clean conscience,” one read.
In the resort town of Berdyansk, on the shore of the Azov Sea, residents described the soldiers who captured their town Sunday as exhausted young conscripts.
“Frightened kids, frightened looks. They want to eat,” Konstantin Maloletka, who runs a small shop, said by telephone.
The soldiers went into a supermarket and grabbed canned meat, vodka and cigarettes. “They ate right in the store,” he said. “It looked like they haven’t been fed in recent days.”
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.
“They wanted to have a blitzkrieg, but it failed, so they act this way,” said 83-year-old Valentin Petrovich, using just his first name and his Russian-style middle name because of fear for his safety. He described watching the shelling from his downtown apartment.
The Russian military has denied targeting residential areas despite abundant evidence of shelling of homes, schools and hospitals.
As the invasion dragged on more slowly than many in the West expected, with the outgunned Ukrainians mounting stiff resistance, the Kremlin reported that its land, air and sea nuclear forces had been put on high alert following Putin’s weekend order. Stepping up his rhetoric, Putin denounced the U.S. and its allies as an “empire of lies.”
For many, the nuclear high alert stirred up memories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and fears that the West could be drawn into direct conflict with Russia.
However, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had yet to see any appreciable change in Russia’s nuclear posture.
As far-reaching Western sanctions on Russian banks and other institutions took hold, the ruble plummeted, and Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore it up, as did Putin, signing a decree restricting foreign currency.
But that did little to calm Russian fears. In Moscow, people lined up to withdraw cash as the sanctions threatened to drive up prices and reduce the standard of living for millions of ordinary Russians.
In yet another blow to Russia’s economy, the oil giant Shell said it is pulling out of the country because of the invasion, announcing it will withdraw from its joint ventures with state-owned gas company Gazprom and other entities and end its involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project between Russia and Europe.
Across Ukraine, meanwhile, terrified families huddled overnight in shelters, basements or corridors.
“I sit and pray for these negotiations to end successfully, so that they reach an agreement to end the slaughter, and so there is no more war,” said Alexandra Mikhailova, weeping as she clutched her cat in a makeshift shelter in the strategic southeastern port city of Mariupol. Around her, parents sought to console children and keep them warm.
The U.N. human rights chief said at least 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in more than four days of fighting — warning that figure is probably a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead.
More than a half-million people have fled the country since the invasion, another U.N. official said, with many of them going to Poland, Romania and Hungary. And millions have left their homes.
Among the refugees in Hungary was Maria Pavlushko, 24, an information technology project manager from Zhytomyr, a city around 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Kyiv. She said her father stayed behind to fight the Russians.
“I am proud about him,” she said. “A lot of my friends, a lot of young boys are going … to kill” Russian soldiers.
In Poland, Natalia Pivniuk, a young Ukrainian refugee from the western city of Lviv, described people crowding and pushing to get on the train out of Ukraine, which she said was “very scary, and dangerous physically and dangerous mentally.”
“People are under stress … and when people are scared they become egoist and forget about everything,” she said. “People are traumatized because they were on that train.”
The negotiators at Monday’s talks met at a long table with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.
But while Ukraine sent its defense minister and other top officials, the Russian delegation was led by Putin’s adviser on culture — an unlikely envoy for ending the war and perhaps a sign of how seriously Moscow views the talks.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Putin is seeking in the talks, or from the war itself, though Western officials believe he wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
Also, the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly opened its first emergency session in decades in order to deal with the Ukraine invasion, with Assembly President Abdulla Shahid calling for an immediate cease-fire, maximum restraint by all parties and “a full return to diplomacy and dialogue.”
In other fighting, strategic ports in the country’s south came under assault from Russian forces. Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, is “hanging on,” said Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich. An oil depot was reported 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.
At this stage, Ukraine is many years away from reaching the standards for achieving EU membership. An addition to the 27-nation bloc must be approved unanimously.
Overall, the consensus has been that Ukraine’s deep-seated corruption could make it hard for the country to win EU acceptance. Still, in an interview with Euronews on Sunday, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said, “We want them in the European Union.”