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Ukraine's capital under threat as Russia presses invasion

by YURAS KARMANAU, JIM HEINTZ, VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and DASHA LITVINOVA Associated Press
| February 25, 2022 2:00 PM

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops bore down on Ukraine's capital Friday, with explosions and gunfire sounding in the city as the invasion of a democratic country fueled fears of wider war in Europe and triggered new international efforts — including direct sanctions on President Vladimir Putin — to make Moscow stop.

Amid reports of hundreds of casualties from the warfare — including shelling that sliced through a Kyiv apartment building and pummeled bridges and schools — there also were growing signs that Russia may be seeking to overthrow Ukraine's government, which U.S. officials have described as Putin's ultimate objective. It would be his boldest effort yet to redraw the world map and revive Moscow's Cold War-era influence.

Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy appealed for a cease-fire and warned in a bleak statement that multiple cities were under attack. "This night they will storm," he said.

U.S. defense officials believe the Russian offensive has encountered considerable resistance and is proceeding slower than Moscow had envisioned. That's something of a reversal from the run-up to the attack, when U.S. officials appeared more alarmed than their counterparts in Kyiv at the pace of Russian operations.

NATO decided to send parts of the alliance's response force to help protect its member nations in the east for the first time. NATO did not say how many troops would be deployed but added that it would involve land, sea and air power.

The Russian military continued its advance, laying claim Friday to the southern Ukraine city of Melitopol. Still, it was unclear in the fog of war how much of Ukraine is still under Ukrainian control and how much or little Russian forces have seized.

The Kremlin accepted Kyiv's offer to hold talks, but it appeared to be an effort to squeeze concessions out of the embattled Zelenskyy instead of a gesture toward a diplomatic solution. Zelenskyy's spokesman, Sergii Nikiforov, said Ukraine nonetheless remains "ready to discuss a cease-fire and peace."

The U.S. and other global powers slapped ever-tougher sanctions on Russia as the invasion reverberated through the world's economy and energy supplies, threatening to further hit ordinary households. U.N. officials said millions could flee Ukraine. Sports leagues moved to punish Russia and even the popular Eurovision song contest banned it from the May finals in Italy.

Through it all, Russia remained unbowed, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that it stop attacking Ukraine and withdraw troops immediately. The veto was expected, but the U.S. and its supporters argued that the effort would highlight Moscow's international isolation. The 11-1 vote, with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining, showed significant but not total opposition to Russia's invasion of its smaller, militarily weaker neighbor.

Day Two of Russia's invasion, the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, focused on the Ukrainian capital, where Associated Press reporters heard explosions starting before dawn and gunfire was reported in several areas.

After 8 p.m., a large boom was heard near Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square in central Kyiv that was the heart of protests which led to the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president. The cause was not immediately known.

Five explosions struck near a major power plant on Kyiv's eastern outskirts, said Mayor Vitaly Klitschko. There was no information on what caused them, and no electrical outages were immediately reported.

Russia's military said it seized a strategic airport outside Kyiv, allowing it to quickly build up forces to take the capital. It claimed to have already cut the city off from the west — the direction taken by many to escape the invasion — leading to lines of cars snaking toward the Polish border.

Russia's Defense Ministry claimed to have blocked off the cities of Sumy and Konotop and said that the offensive had netted dozens of Ukrainian military assets. The statement could not be independently confirmed.

Intense gunfire broke out on a bridge across the Dnieper River dividing eastern and western Kyiv, while another key bridge to the capital was blown away.

Ukrainian officials reported at least 137 deaths on their side and claimed hundreds on the Russian one. Russian authorities released no casualty figures, and it was not possible to verify the tolls.

U.N. officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and airstrikes, and said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes, estimating up to 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates.

Zelenskyy tweeted that he and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke by phone and discussed "strengthening sanctions, concrete defense assistance and an antiwar coalition," adding that he was grateful for Washington's support.

His whereabouts were kept secret after telling European leaders in a call Thursday night that he was Russia's No. 1 target — and that they might not see him again alive. His office later released a video of him standing with senior aides outside the presidential office, saying he and other government officials would stay in the capital.

"All of us are here protecting our independence of our country," Zelenskyy said. "And it will continue to be this way. Glory to our defenders, glory to Ukraine, glory to heroes."

A U.S. defense official said a Russian amphibious assault was underway, and thousands of Russian forces were moving ashore from the Sea of Azov, west of Mariupol. The official said Ukrainian air defenses have been degraded but are still operating, and that about a third of the combat power that Russia had massed around Ukraine is now inside the country. The official estimated Russia had fired more than 200 missiles into Ukraine, with some hitting residential areas.

A senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of current intelligence assessments told AP that Russian armor is 50 kilometers (31 miles) to both the north and west of Kyiv.

Zelenskyy earlier offered to negotiate on a key Putin demand: that Ukraine declare itself neutral and abandon its ambition of joining NATO. The Kremlin said Kyiv initially agreed to have talks in Minsk, then said it would prefer Warsaw and later halted communications. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said later that Kyiv would discuss prospects for talks on Saturday.

The assault was anticipated for weeks by the U.S. and Western allies and denied to be in the works just as long by Putin. He argued the West left him with no other choice by refusing to negotiate Russia's security demands.

In a window into how the increasingly isolated Putin views Ukraine and its leadership, he urged Ukraine's military to surrender, saying: "We would find it easier to agree with you than with that gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis who have holed up in Kyiv and have taken the entire Ukrainian people hostage."

Playing on Russian nostalgia for World War II heroism, the Kremlin equates members of Ukrainian right-wing groups with neo-Nazis. Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, angrily dismisses those claims.

Putin has not disclosed his ultimate plans for Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a hint, saying "We want to allow the Ukrainian people to determine its own fate." Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia recognizes Zelenskyy as the president, but would not say how long the Russian military operation could last.

Ukrainians abruptly adjusted to life under fire, after Russian forces invaded the country from three sides as they massed an estimated 150,000 troops nearby.

Residents of a Kyiv apartment building woke to screaming, smoke and flying dust. What the mayor identified as Russian shelling tore off part of the building and ignited a fire.

"What are you doing? What is this?" resident Yurii Zhyhanov asked Russian forces. Like countless other Ukrainians, he grabbed what belongings he could, took his mother, and fled, car alarms wailing behind him.

Elsewhere in Kyiv, the body of a dead soldier lay near an underpass. Fragments of a downed aircraft smoked amid the brick homes of a residential area. Black plastic was draped over body parts found beside them. And people climbed out of bomb shelters, basements and subways to face another day of upheaval.

"We're all scared and worried. We don't know what to do then, what's going to happen in a few days," said Lucy Vashaka, 20, a worker at a small Kyiv hotel.

AP reporters saw signs of significant fighting near Ivankiv, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Kyiv. Russian troops also entered the city of Sumy, near the border with Russia that sits on a highway leading to Kyiv from the east. A Russian missile launcher was seen on the outskirts of Kharkiv in the east.

At the Pentagon, press secretary John Kirby said the U.S. believes the offensive, including its advance on Kiev, has gone more slowly than Moscow had planned, noting that Ukraine forces have been fighting back. But he also said the military campaign is in an early stage and circumstances can change rapidly.

The Biden administration said Friday that it would move to freeze the assets of Putin and Lavrov, following the European Union and Britain in directly sanctioning top Russian leadership.

Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, called the sanctions against Putin and Lavrov "an example and a demonstration of a total helplessness" of the West.

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