Ukraine Girds for Kyiv Attack Amid Signs of Slowing Russian Advance
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine braced for an all-out assault on its capital early Saturday, after a day in which the military blew up a bridge to slow the advance of Russian soldiers, street fights erupted in a northern district of the city, and the nation’s leaders warned residents that Russia wanted to “bring the capital to its knees.”
The moves to defend Kyiv escalated on Friday, the second day of a Russian military incursion, as bursts of small-arms fire and at least five explosions could be heard in the center of the city, hours after an overnight missile barrage struck it and a rocket crashed into a residential building.
The fighting came as Western governments imposed new sanctions, including on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia himself, tens of thousands of refugees fled the country, and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, appeared in a video warning that Russian forces planned an all-out attack and that “the fate of Ukraine is now being decided.”
“This night, the enemy will use all the forces available to break our resistance — treacherously, viciously, inhumanly,” Mr. Zelensky said in the speech posted online after midnight on Saturday, according a translation provided by his office.
As soldiers in Kyiv set up firing points on bridges over the Dnieper River and checkpoints on highways into the city, Mr. Zelensky warned that Russian “sabotage groups” had entered the city with the aim of “destroying the head of state.”
By about 5 a.m. Saturday, gunfire could be heard every few minutes in central Kyiv, with the crack of shots and bursts of automatic fire apparently coming from neighborhoods in the north. Artillery fire was reported in the Shuliavka neighborhood, near the city zoo, and videos showed vehicles on fire there.
Reports on Friday from the Ukrainian military and the United States and its allies indicated that Ukrainian troops were fighting fiercely, slowing the Russian advance. Civilians were also volunteering to defend the country.
The Ukrainian military reported losses as it seemed to withdraw from border areas. But it also reported successes: In Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, Ukrainians destroyed several troop carriers; the army said it had shot down a Russian aircraft; and the president’s office said the military had recaptured an airfield outside Kyiv, the Hostomel airport, that Russian commandos had seized the day before.
The body of a Russian soldier lay next to a Russian vehicle in Kharkiv on Friday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
A U.S. Defense Department official said the Russians were “not moving on Kyiv as fast as they anticipated it going” and that, significantly, “Ukrainian command and control is intact” to direct the defense of the country.
But officials warned that as of Friday morning, Russia had sent into Ukraine only 30 percent of the 150,000 to 190,000 troops it had massed at the border, so Moscow could intensify its attack at any time.
The fighting continued as Russia sent mixed signals on whether it was ready to enter discussions that would end the hostilities.
Earlier Friday, a Kremlin spokesman said that Mr. Putin was prepared to send representatives to Belarus for talks with a Ukrainian delegation. But Mr. Putin later urged Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms and described Mr. Zelensky’s government as “a band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” — undercutting any suggestion that he was planning to engage Mr. Zelensky in peace talks. Moscow on Friday also vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the invasion.
Late Friday, Russia claimed that Ukraine had rejected immediate talks — a characterization that was at odds with a report from Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, who said that Mr. Zelensky had asked the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to mediate negotiations in Jerusalem. Mr. Bennett’s office confirmed that a phone call had taken place, but declined to comment on its contents.
“They didn’t say no,” the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, said of the Israelis. “They are trying to figure out where they are in this chess play.”
Western nations moved to further punish Russia economically, to isolate it on the world stage and to shore up defenses in Eastern Europe.
At a rare emergency summit on Friday, NATO agreed to make “significant additional defensive deployments of forces” to the eastern members of the alliance, it said in a statement.
NATO activated elements of the Rapid Response Force, which in principle can call on 40,000 troops, and the “very high readiness joint task force,” which is essentially a land brigade of about 5,000 troops, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said at a news conference after the summit. The troops are not meant to go into Ukraine but to fortify Eastern European nations that are part of NATO.
European Union foreign ministers approved a second set of sanctions on Friday that would freeze the assets of Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and impose financial, technological, industrial, trade and travel-related bans and restrictions. President Biden then joined the E.U. in imposing sanctions directly on Mr. Putin, Mr. Lavrov and members of the Russian national security team, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said.
The status of Mr. Putin’s financial holdings has been cloaked in mystery, and his money is not believed to be held in the United States.
The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said it would close its Moscow office and terminate Russia’s application for membership to the group, which represents 38 of the world’s most influential economies.
As the fighting spread, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees fled the country in response to what the United Nations described as a growing humanitarian crisis. Poland’s border service said that 29,000 people had arrived from Ukraine on Thursday, the first day of the war. More fled across Ukraine’s western border on Friday. Others walked into Romania, with more than 50,000 in total having left, according to U.N. estimates.
Most of those who crossed into Poland at Medyka, one of the few border posts with Ukraine that allow pedestrians as well as vehicles, were women and children. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are barred from leaving Ukraine by a government order aimed at keeping potential fighters in the country.
Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ top humanitarian and emergency coordinator, said on Friday that the agency was setting aside $20 million from an emergency fund to help with the crisis in Ukraine.
In just two days, the conflict has put “hundreds of thousands of people” on the move, Mr. Griffiths said. Even before the invasion, about three million people in the eastern region of Donbas relied on basic aid, and with the war spreading across the country, older people, children and people with disabilities will need immediate assistance, he said.
“Displacement is going to be a huge issue, inside and outside of the country,” Mr. Griffiths said. “We have yet to see the consequences of where this operation is going.”
By midday Friday, Russian forces had fired more than 200 missiles at targets across Ukraine, according to a senior Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military assessments.
Though hostilities continued across Ukraine, the primary focus after two days of fighting was Kyiv. A report issued by the country’s Defense Ministry identified Russia’s advances from three directions — the north, east and south — as it sought to tighten the vise around the capital.
To the north, the Ukrainian Army blew up a bridge over the Teteriv River, about 30 miles from Kyiv, to prevent a column of tanks from crossing, the Defense Ministry said Friday.
But an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, Mikhail Podolyak, told journalists at a briefing on Friday that the Russian military’s plans were not fully focused on Kyiv. The goal, he said, was to surround the capital and the large cities in Ukraine’s south and east, including Kharkiv, where fighting continued for a second day on Friday.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Russian forces were striking with long-range missiles and aircraft, and that Russia’s airborne command and control aircraft were flying in Belarusian airspace and over Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Late Friday, five explosions could be heard within about five minutes in Kyiv, and Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that they appeared to have come from a thermal power plant to the city’s northeast.
In the south, Russian troops had advanced toward a strategically important dam controlling the flow of water from the Dnieper River along a canal to the Crimean Peninsula, the ministry statement said.
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.
How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.
What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.
How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”
How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.
How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.
Russia’s military confirmed on Friday that it had captured the irradiated Chernobyl exclusion zone and said radiation levels had not increased after the site changed hands.
Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people that was bustling with activity just a few days ago, was an eerie, deserted tableau of vacated streets and closed shops on Friday. Air raid sirens wailed about every half-hour.
“Right now, we hear blasts and gunfire in some districts,” Mr. Klitschko said in a statement. The army, he said, had tried to block Russian units from entering the capital. “Unfortunately, some of these diversionary groups already broke into Kyiv,” he said. “The enemy wants to bring the capital to its knees.”
At the Universitet metro station, 285 feet underground, hundreds of people crammed along the platforms with their children and pets. The station was re-engineered in the Soviet era to function as a bomb shelter, and when sirens began going off around 4 a.m. on Friday, Sonya Veres, 21, shook her friend Olena awake and grabbed her cat.
They had been sheltering in the metro station since then, sitting under the blankets as the cat trembled.
“I never thought an invasion could happen to us here,” Ms. Veres said. “And now look at us, sleeping on the floor” in a subway.
Babies were crying and many people were checking their cellphones for updates on the news. Everyone was wearing winter coats. It was freezing, and a cold gust of wind blew every time a subway car — also packed with people — shuddered by.
Ms. Veres said she was concerned about leaving the city by car now that Russian forces had partly surrounded it, with battles on the city’s north and west ends raging.
In the southeastern neighborhood of Pozniaky, a gaping 20-foot crater stood between a Soviet-era apartment block and a modest playground from the same era.
The crater was strewn with debris — a beanbag chair, an iron, a facedown teddy bear, a used vacuum bag — remnants of a life that was normal until a few days ago.
The crater was caused by a blast when a Russian missile hit a residential building, Mr. Klitschko said.
Ivan Yeschenko gazed at the crater in amazement and anger. He said he had been unable to sleep and had seen the explosion.
“No one can live here anymore,” he lamented. Mr. Yeschenko, 63, who was dressed in military-style clothes and leaning on a walking stick, said he had already fought Russians at the front and would defend the city to his death.
“They said they weren’t going to target civilians,” he said, referring to Russians. “So much for that!”
Yuri Shigayev, 63, who until Friday morning had lived on the second floor of the building, said he was ready to join other residents who had taken up arms to defend Kyiv. In a sign of the potentially chaotic fight that could unfold, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Facebook that Kyiv residents should “prepare Molotov cocktails” to deter “the occupier.”
On Saturday, in his early-morning video message, Mr. Zelensky implored his countrymen to protect Kyiv. “This night will be harder than the day,” he said, noting that many cities were under attack. “You cannot lose the capital.”
Valerie Hopkins reported from Kyiv, Ukraine; Andrew E. Kramer from Medyka, Poland; and Michael Levenson from New York. Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Kharkiv, Ukraine.