Kyiv residents braced for another night of sheltering underground on Saturday, as Russian troops closed in on the Ukrainian capital and skirmishes were reported on its outskirts.
Ukraine’s leader, meanwhile, claimed the country’s forces had repulsed the Russian assault on Kyiv and vowed to keep up the struggle as he appealed for more help from the outside world.
“The real fighting for Kyiv is ongoing,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message, accusing Russia of hitting infrastructure and civilian targets. “We will win.”
The U.S. government had urged Zelensky to evacuate Kyiv but he declined, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, quoted the president as saying he needed anti-tank ammunition but “not a ride.”
“The fight is here,” Zelensky said.
Central Kyiv appeared quiet Saturday, and skirmishes reported on the edge of the city suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces. Britain’s Defence Ministry said that the bulk of Russian forces were 30 kilometres from the middle of the city.
Russia claims its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but civilians have been killed and injured during Europe’s largest ground war since the Second World War.
Ukraine said more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed. Russia did not release casualty figures. The Ukrainian health minister says that 198 people have been killed, including three children, and more than 1,000 others have been wounded. His statement made it unclear whether the casualties included both military and civilians.
The mayor of Kyiv is imposing an intensified curfew as Russian troops press in on the capital city. Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging app that he is extending the curfew hours to run from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. local time.
“All civilians on the street during the curfew will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups,” Klitschko said.
A missile earlier struck a highrise apartment building on the city’s southwestern outskirts near one of Kyiv’s two passenger airports, leaving a jagged hole of ravaged apartments over several floors. A rescue worker said six civilians were injured.
The conflict has already driven hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from their homes. UN officials said more than 150,000 people from Ukraine have left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighbouring nations.
Saturday’s street clashes followed two days of massive air and missile strikes as Russian soldiers moved in from the north, east and south. The assault pummelled bridges, schools and residential neighbourhoods.
It was unclear how much of Ukraine was still under Ukrainian control and how much Russian forces have seized. Western governments claimed stiff Ukrainian resistance had slowed the Russian advance, and Russia does not yet control Ukraine’s skies.
Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn on Saturday as it headed for the dam of the sprawling water reservoir that serves Kyiv. Ukrainian officials also said a Russian military convoy was destroyed near the city early Saturday.
In addition to Kyiv, the Russian assault appeared to focus on Ukraine’s coastline, stretching from the Black Sea port of Odesa, in the west near the border with Romania, to the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol in the east.
If the Russian troops succeed, Ukraine will be cut off from access to all of its seaports, which are vital for its economy. In Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers guarded bridges and blocked people from the seashore area amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.
The Russian military said Friday that they claimed control of Melitopol, about 35 kilometres inland from the Sea of Azov.
Western officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own. The invasion represented Putin’s boldest effort yet to redraw the map of Europe and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence. It triggered new international efforts to end the invasion, including direct sanctions on Putin.
Zelensky offered renewed assurance Saturday that the country’s military would stand up to the Russian invasion. In a defiant video recorded on a downtown Kyiv street, he said he remained in the city and that claims the Ukrainian military would put down arms were false.
“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” the Ukrainian president said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”
Zelensky said in a second video later Saturday Moscow’s plan to quickly seize the capital and install a puppet government had been unsuccessful. In an emotional speech, he accused the Russian forces of hitting civilian areas and infrastructure.
The president’s whereabouts were kept secret after he told European leaders in a call Thursday that he was Russia’s No. 1 target — and that they might not see him again alive.
The UN estimates that up to five million could flee if the fighting escalates. Refugees arriving in the Hungarian border town of Zahony said men of fighting age were not being allowed to leave Ukraine.
“My son was not allowed to come. My heart is so sore, I’m shaking, I can’t calm down, they did not let him come,” said Vilma Sugar, 68.
The United States and other allies, including Canada, moved to freeze the assets of Putin and his foreign minister Friday as part of tougher sanctions on Russia as the invasion reverberated through the world’s economy and energy supplies.
Sports leagues also sought to punish Russia, and the popular Eurovision song contest banned Russian acts from the event’s May finals in Italy.
Russia remained unbowed, vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding that it stop attacking Ukraine and withdraw troops immediately. The 11-1 vote, with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining, showed significant opposition to Russia’s invasion of its smaller, militarily weaker neighbour.
A senior Russian official on Saturday shrugged off the wide-ranging sanctions that the U.S., the European Union and other allies slapped on Russia as a reflection of Western “political impotence.”
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, warned that Moscow could react to the sanctions by opting out of the last remaining nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties with nations in the West.
“There is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations,” Medvedev said. “We may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.”
NATO, meanwhile, decided Friday to send parts of the alliance’s response force to help protect 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.