Ukraine’s Capital Kyiv Braces For A Major Battle With Encroaching Russian Forces (Updated)
Ukrainian forces are preparing to hold the line in Kyiv amid reports of renewed Russian offensives across the country.
As Russian forces continue their push on Ukraine's capital Kyiv, as well as make advances along other fronts, President Vladimir Putin has effectively called for the Ukrainian military to stage a coup and implicitly threatened strikes that could kill civilians. This all follows a large Russian missile barrage on Kyiv earlier this morning.
You can find out more about how Russia's invasion of Ukraine has continued to evolve in our earlier rolling coverage of the conflict here. You can find the latest information in the updates at the bottom of this story.
"Take power into your own hands," Putin told the Ukrainian armed forces in a televised address. "It looks like it'll be easier for us to make a deal with you than this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis."
"Don't let neo-Nazis and Banderites use your children, wives & parents as a human shield," he added, making a reference to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian ultranationalist who was arrested by, but then later collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Union during World War II. Putin's remarks here suggest that there may be planning already for more strikes on Kyiv, as well as other population centers, which could put civilians at risk, if the Ukrainian government does not capitulate.
Putin's address comes despite Russian officials, including the President himself, saying earlier in the day that they were seeking to begin negotiations with Ukrainian authorities in Minsk. There had been separate reports that the Ukrainian government had offered to begin talks with the Kremlin. However, there is no indication that Putin has given up his maximalist demands, including his requirements "to bring the current puppet regime to justice," for Ukraine to completely demilitarize, and for it to give up any aspirations to join NATO. The Russian leader also wants the government in Kyiv to formally cede control of the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin sized in 2014, and renounce any territorial claims to two breakaway republics in the eastern Donbas region. Ukrainian officials have seemed generally disinclined to acquiesce to many of these stipulations, though they have reportedly put the matter of NATO member on the table.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has continued to make separate appeals to the international community, especially other countries in Europe, for help. He has repeatedly presented his country's plight as something that could have more far-reaching ramifications on the international rules-based order, as have other Ukrainian officials.
"This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European unity, against basic human rights in Europe, against all rules of coexistence on the continent, against the fact that European countries refuse to divide borders by force," he said in his own televised address this morning. "When bombs fall in Kyiv, this is happening in Europe. When missiles kill our people, this is the death of all Europeans. Demand more protection for Europe, more protection for Ukraine, as part of a democratic world."
The Ukrainian President asked for help to "close the sky today," a possible call for an internationally-enforced no-fly zone or something similar over Ukraine or a reference to growing prohibitions against commercial flights coming from Russia that many European nations have now put into place. He also said his country would welcome foreign volunteers with military service.
Kyiv is already bracing for a major battle as Russian units have moved into the capital's suburbs, with weapons now being distributed to local volunteer defense forces. The city's mayor, former professional boxer Vitali Klitschko, as well as former President Petro Poroshenko, have taken up arms and joined these elements in the streets.
There have been sporadic reports of fighting in Kyiv itself, possibly with Russian special operations forces or proxy infiltrators. Ukraine's Zelensky had said overnight that there were "sabotage groups" in the city. There is at least one unconfirmed report that enemy personnel wearing Ukrainian military uniforms were killed in one engagement with Territorial Defense Forces personnel.
Another video is making the rounds on social media that has been widely reported to show a Russian SA-13 mobile surface-to-air missile system driving over a civilian vehicle. However, it has since been confirmed that this was a Ukrainian vehicle and that this was an accident of some kind.
Ukraine's armed forces are continuing to fight back around Kyiv and elsewhere in the country. There is new reporting of fighting over Hostomel Airport near Kyiv, which Russia appears intent on seizing in order to open an airborne bridgehead. This airfield, which presently hosts the only flying example of the An-225 Mriya, the world's largest operational aircraft, has already been the site of pitched back-and-forth battles, as you can read more about here.
There are new reports of a Russian amphibious assault near the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which sits on the Sea of Azov. There have been reports in the past that such operations were underway, which subsequently turned out to be incorrect, but this area remains of key strategic importance to Russia. There have also been reports that multiple commercial vessels have been hit by Russian missile strikes in the Black and Ukrainian ports along the coast there, but the exact circumstances of these incidents remain largely unconfirmed.
Earlier, Ukrainian forces reportedly launched what appears to be their first attack on Russian soil, targeting Millerovo Air Base, which lies close to the Russian-Ukrainian border. It remains unclear whether what type or types of weapons were used to carry out that strike, but it may have involved the employment of OTR-21 Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missiles or armed TB2 drones.
All around, the fighting appears to have been intense over the past 36 hours or so. U.S. military said today that there are indications that Russian forces may have lost some momentum, though they continue to make gains, which is in line with an earlier assessment of the situation from the U.K. Ministry of Defense. American officials say that Ukraine has notably not yet lost air superiority.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense now claims to have killed thousands of Russian troops, as well as destroyed hundreds of armored vehicles and 10 aircraft, in the last two days. There is no independent confirmation of these losses. At the same time, even if they are a fraction of these claimed figures, it could be significant for Russia. Per official figures, some 65 Russian troops died in the country's war with Georgia in 2008, which lasted 12 days. The official death toll for Russian personnel in Syria since the Kremlin intervened there in 2015 sits at just 117. Ukrainian forces have suffered significant casualties, as well, with officials saying that at least 137 service members have died in the fighting so far.
By all indications, what happens in the next day or so could well have a major impact on the ultimate course of this conflict.
UPDATE: 1:25 PM EST—
Underscoring how increasingly dire the situation seems, "this might be the last time you see me alive," Ukrainian President Zelensky told European leaders earlier today, according to The Wall Street Journal.
NATO has now activated its Response Force for the very first time in response to the conflict in Ukraine, though the alliance continues to stress that it has no plans to directly intervene. The air, naval, and ground contingents from the Response Force will now join other forces that member states have deployed along NATO's eastern flank with Russia in recent weeks. NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today that the alliance plans to try to deconflict with the Russian government specifically to avoid "accidents" that could trigger a broader conflict. He also warned that cyberattacks could trigger NATO's Article 5 collective security provisions.
Though NATO is not planning to deploy troops to Ukraine, the Secretary-General said that member states will continue to supply weapons and other military aid, which could include additional air defense capabilities. Multiple NATO nations have already or are planning to deliver short-range surface-to-air missile systems, such as the U.S.-made Stinger.
Though the U.S. military and other NATO countries have stopped flying over Ukrainian airspace, a steady stream of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorites continue along the borders of that country. The information on Russian force members that these aircraft have gathered has been critical to U.S. military assessments about the situation, as you can read more about here.
NATO E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) radar planes have been tracked flying over members of the alliance that border Ukraine. These aircraft would provide valuable monitoring capabilities to keep watch for various potential aerial threats, as well as be able to help manage the fighter jets from various countries that have been deployed to help protect the alliance's periphery.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
UPDATE: 2:15 PM EST—
Night has fallen in Ukraine and new reports of fighting around Kyiv, as well as along other fronts in the country, continue to appear. British officials have said that the Russians appear to be executing a two-pronged attack against the Ukrainian capital.
ITV News has reported that it has obtained documents that show the Russian Ministry of Health expects some kind of major medical emergency soon, which may or may not be linked to the invasion of Ukraine. Russia has also seen a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent months following the emergence of the Omricon variant. Separately, a video has emerged showing Russian casualties being brought to a Ukrainian hospital in Kharkiv.
Commercial satellite provider Maxar has released new imagery from Belarus showing recent major force buildups, including the deployment of dozens of helicopters, at bases near the country's border with Ukraine. One of these bases is an area of Belarus opposite the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, through which Russian forces launched a new offensive yesterday.
Interestingly, the conflict in Ukraine has reached a level of intensity that indicators of fighting are now visible to NASA satellites designed to watch for forest fires. Much more capable U.S. military early-warning satellites have no doubt been able to monitor the situation, as well. For instance, the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation, which is primarily intended to spot incoming ballistic missile launches, is reportedly sensitive enough to detect artillery fire.
There are unconfirmed reports that France has deployed a contingent from GIGN, the country's premier counter-terrorism and hostage rescue force, to reinforce its embassy in Kyiv and that these personnel could help ensure Ukrainian President Zelensky's security in the future. This might suggest that France has offered to shelter the Ukrainian leader in their diplomatic mission if the capital falls to Russian forces.
UPDATE: 3:00 PM EST—
There are new videos reportedly of a massive fire somewhere near Kharkiv, possibly at a fuel depot, which has been a major target of Russia's invasion. Other footage has appeared on social media that is reported to show new attacks on Ukrainian Air Bases.
Ukraine's State Emergency Service has separately denied that a powerplant outside of Kyiv has been knocked out in an attack. There are still reports of power outages and disruption in the Ukrainian capital, suggesting that the power station might still have sustained some damage.
Reuters has reported that a Russian advance on the city of the northeast of Kyiv came to a stop earlier today after heavy losses. That report also indicated possible logistics issues, with reports that Russian troops were looting local shops for supplies.
"The enemy is clearly surprised by the results of the Ukrainian armed forces and volunteers to protect the integrity of our country," Oksana Markarova, Ukraine's Ambassador to the United States, told reporters at a press conference today. "We see that they didn't advance the way they planned."
Markarova confirmed that an orphanage and associated school near Kyiv had been hit by Russian fire earlier in the day while children were inside, with a number of reported casualties as a result. This adds to a growing number of reports that Russian forces had struck civilian targets, either deliberately or as a result of attacking in an indiscriminate manner. The Ukrainian government say it plans to call for an investigation into possible war crimes, while the U.S. government, among others, has decried these incidents.
Despite Markarova's comments about Ukrainian forces having frustrated Russian advances, which have been echoed today by the country's Ministry of Defense, as well as earlier U.S. and U.K. government assessments, the Kremlin continues to push ahead with its invasion.
“The situation now is threatening for Kyiv, no exaggeration,” Kyiv's Mayor Vitali Klitschko has said in a post on the Telegram social media network. “The night and the morning will be difficult.” Ukraine's Defense Ministry says that British-supplied NLAW anti-tank guided missiles have now been distributed to reserve forces in the capital.
UPDATE: 4:05 PM EST—
Russian strikes appear to be continuing against various targets in Ukraine. At the same time, imagery that supports claims that Russian missiles and other weapons have hit civilian targets is emerging.
In a small, but interesting development, Suheil Hammoud, a famous Syrian rebel who also goes by the nom de guerre Abu Tow in reference to the TOW anti-tank missile, has taken to Twitter to ask how he can get to Ukraine to fight the Russians. Earlier today, Ukrainian President Zelensky had said the country would welcome foreign volunteers with military experience. Hammoud is credited with destroying dozens of Syrian tanks.
The U.S. government plans to sanction Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, as well as the country's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. She added that more sanctions could be yet to come.
President Biden had earlier spoken with President Zelesnky and pledged to continue providing "economic, humanitarian, and security support" to Ukraine. Zelensky had issued his own statement after the call thanking the United States for its continued assistance.
Separately, there are multiple reports that the U.S. State Department is moving ahead with previously stated plans to trim back non-essential interactions with the Russian government. This will not include halting engagement through international organizations or negotiations on arms control and other issues.
The Pentagon says that it will not be providing details about U.S. military units that could be deployed as part of the activation of the NATO Response Force earlier today. The U.S. military says it is also curtailing announcements about military aid to Ukraine for operational security reasons.
Pictures have appeared online that reportedly show An-124 cargo aircraft belonging to Ukraine's Antonov Airlines at Linz Airport in Austria, where crews have made a small protest against Russia's invasion. This comes after a quartet of Ukrainian Air Force An-124s were observed flying to Poland last night for still unclear reasons.
We have brought our updates to this story to an end, but our rolling coverage of the conflict in Ukraine here.
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