• Moscow accuses Ukraine of prolonging conflict
• 198 killed as violence escalates in Odessa, Kharkiv, Lviv
• US to impose sanctions on Putin and Lavrov
KYIV: Troops closed in on Ukraine’s capital when Russian units resumed their offensive from all directions, after the Friday pause in anticipation of talks offered by Ukraine leadership.
However, Russia claimed on Saturday that Kyiv had refused to negotiate, while the latter vowed to continue fighting, claiming to have halted the Kremlin’s push to capture Kyiv and appealing to the West for help.
“Since the Ukrainian side refused to negotiate, the advance of the Russian forces resumed this afternoon,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov while accusing Ukraine of prolonging the military conflict despite Friday’s pause to its invasion of the pro-Western country.
“In connection with the expected negotiations, the Russian president yesterday afternoon ordered the suspension of the advance of the main forces of the Russian Federation,” the Kremlin spokesman told reporters during a conference call.
Ever since fighting resumed on the outskirts of Kyiv, it was believed small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces, as Britain and the US said the bulk of Russian forces were 30 kilometres from the city centre. A missile struck a high-rise apartment building in the southwestern outskirts near one of the city’s two airports on Saturday.
“The real fighting for Kyiv is ongoing,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a new video message in which he accused Russia of hitting infrastructure and civilian targets. Russians deployed “missiles, fighters, drones, artillery, armoured vehicles, saboteurs, and airborne forces” against Ukraine and have hit “residential areas”, he said.
But “we’ve derailed their plan”, Zelenskyy said, stressing that the Ukrainian army was in control of the capital Kyiv while fighting was on in southern city of Odessa and the north-eastern city of Kharkiv. The western city of Lviv and other cities in western and central Ukraine have been targeted with air strikes, he said.
In all, according to Ukraine’s health minister, 198 people have been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded since Thursday. The conflict has driven thousands of Ukrainians from their homes as over 120,000 Ukrainians left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighbouring nations, UN officials said.
Meanwhile, the West is starting to finally step up supplies of military equipment to Ukraine after the invasion. Germany dramatically ramped up its backing for Ukraine’s battle against Russia, approving weapons deliveries for Kyiv in a policy U-turn and agreeing to limit Moscow’s access to the SWIFT interbank system.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed during a phone call Saturday that the world needs to isolate Russia “completely diplomatically and financially,” Downing Street said.
Besides, EU foreign ministers will hold talks on Sunday in an effort to respond to the urgent calls by Kyiv to beef up military support and toughen sanctions on Russia.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted that the foreign ministers will hold a video conference at 1700 GMT on Sunday. The meeting will be “to adopt further measures in support of Ukraine, against aggression by Russia,” Borrell said.
The US, meanwhile, announced that it would impose sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
A travel ban would be part of the sanctions besides sanctions imposed on the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Point of no return
Following the spate of measures, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Russian television, “We have reached the line after which the point of no return begins”.
As Russia’s ties with the West dived to new lows, a senior Russian official warned on Saturday Moscow may respond to Western sanctions by opting out of the last nuclear arms deal with the US, cutting diplomatic ties with Western nations and freezing their assets.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, noted that the sanctions offer the Kremlin a pretext to completely review its ties with the West, suggesting that Russia could opt out of the New START nuclear arms control treaty that limits the US and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The treaty, which Medvedev signed in 2010 with then-US President Barack Obama, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance. The pact, the last remaining US-Russian nuclear arms control agreement, had been set to expire in February 2021 but Moscow and Washington extended it for another five years.
Referring to Western threats to freeze the assets of Russian companies and individuals, Medvedev warned that Moscow wouldn’t hesitate to do the same. “We would need to respond in kind by freezing the assets of foreigners and foreign companies in Russia ... and possibly by nationalizing the assets of those who come from unfriendly jurisdictions,” he said.
“We are being driven out of everywhere, punished and threatened, but we don’t feel scared,” he said, mocking the sanctions imposed by the US and its allies as an attempt to vindicate their past shameful decisions such as a ‘cowardly retreat’ from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, the EU’s sanctions package — the second adopted this week as Russia’s military build-up moved into a full-on assault — was approved by leaders in an overnight summit. It hammers Russia’s financial, energy and transport sectors, and curbs the ability of Russians to keep large amounts of cash in EU banks.
It also expands the number of Russians on the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals, barred from entry and whose EU assets are blocked. Following suit, Britain’s Treasury issued a financial sanctions notice against Putin and Lavrov, adding them to a list of Russian leaders, who have already had their property and bank accounts in Britain frozen.
Commenting on the Council of Europe’s move to suspend Russia’s representation in Europe’s leading human rights organisation, Medvedev said it offered a good opportunity to restore the death penalty for grave crimes, noting that neither the United States nor China had ever stopped using it. Moscow has maintained a moratorium on capital punishment as part of its obligations since it joined the Council of Europe in 1996.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2022