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Ukraine slows Russian invasion under looming threat of nuclear attack

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian troops fight to hold Kyiv, but mayor warns city is surrounded by Russian forces'
Ukrainian troops fight to hold Kyiv, but mayor warns city is surrounded by Russian forces
WATCH: Ukrainian troops fight to hold Kyiv, but mayor warns city is surrounded by Russian forces – Feb 27, 2022

The latest as of 6:37 a.m. ET Monday:

  • Ukraine has maintained control of its capital city of Kyiv along with other major cities as the fighting seemed to cool down briefly
  • Talks began between Ukrainian and Russian officials Monday, as the two sides sent delegations to meet at the Belarus-Ukraine border. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said it would demand an immediate cease-fire.
  • The U.N. Security Council approved an emergency session in the General Assembly on Monday concerning the invasion
  • The Russian rouble plunged nearly 30 per cent to an all-time low versus the dollar on Monday after Western nations announced fresh sanctions to punish Russia.

Despite the ongoing Russian siege, Ukrainian troops have continued to hold onto the capital city of Kyiv and other major strategic cities for the time being. The Russians have faced stiff competition on the ground, in the air and financially, with sanctions aiming to financially slow down their advance into Ukraine. Amid the pushback from Ukraine and Western nations, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert.

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In Kyiv, the explosions and gunfire that have dominated the city since Thursday cooled down on Sunday night heading into Monday. The two sides are set to send delegations to met on Monday at Ukraine’s border with Belarus.

The talks, the first since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, would be held without preconditions at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border, Zelenskyy’s office said in a statement on Sunday.

Zelenskyy, though, said that he doesn’t “really believe” in the outcome of the meeting but it is worth an attempt so there is no doubt that he “tried to stop the war.” Zelenskyy’s office said it would demand an immediate cease-fire.

Exact death tolls are unclear, but Ukraine’s president says at least 16 children have been killed and another 45 wounded, among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other casualties. More than 500,000 people have fled the country since the invasion, a U.N. official said Monday — among the millions who have left their homes.

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian families faced with impossible choices as war tears them apart'
Ukrainian families faced with impossible choices as war tears them apart

The relative lull in warfare Monday morning in Ukraine was unlikely to last.

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Neighboring Belarus could send troops to help Russia as soon as Monday, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of current U.S. intelligence assessments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

U.S. officials say they believe the invasion has been more difficult, and slower, than the Kremlin envisioned, though that could change as Moscow adapts. The British Defense Ministry said Monday that the bulk of Putin’s forces are about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Kyiv, their advance having been slowed by Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine’s president warned Sunday evening that the next 24 hours are crucial for the country facing a Russian invasion that is attacking from “all directions.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gave the notice to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a phone conversation, according to a Johnson spokesperson.

Ukraine’s armed forces said Sunday that the day has been a “difficult time” for the military and Russian troops “continue shelling in almost all directions,” a description also used by the Kremlin.

Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore up the tanking ruble Monday and the U.S. and European countries upped weapons shipments to Ukraine. While they hope to curb Putin’s aggression after he unleashed Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II, the measures also risked pushing an increasingly cornered Putin closer to the edge.

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A senior U.S. defense official told Reuters that it appears Russia is shifting to siege tactics, which is defined as circling a place to cut off supplies and force a surrender.

“Any student of military tactics and strategy will tell you, when you adopt siege tactics, it increases the likelihood of collateral damage,” the official said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

The official said the U.S. estimates that Russia has fired more than 350 missiles at Ukrainian targets so far, mainly focussed on military targets but some hitting civilian infrastructure.

Click to play video: 'Russian invasion of Ukraine continues'
Russian invasion of Ukraine continues

In giving the nuclear alert directive on Sunday, Putin cited “aggressive statements” by NATO members and wide-ranging economic sanctions imposed by the Western nations against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.

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The alert means Putin has ordered Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch — a move that was swiftly condemned by the United States.

“President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable, and we have to continue to stem his actions in the strongest possible way,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CBS.

On Sunday, a referendum in Belarus approved a new constitution that ditches the country’s non-nuclear status, opening the door for nuclear weapons to be placed in the country for first time since it gave them up after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The U.N. Security Council has also approved an emergency session in the General Assembly on Monday concerning the invasion, and U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a call with allies Monday morning to co-ordinate a united response to Russia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to attend.

Click to play video: '‘Nothing is off the table with this guy:’ U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Putin'
‘Nothing is off the table with this guy:’ U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Putin

The announcement came as Russian forces rolled into Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

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Blasts were heard in the city early Monday morning, according to Ukrainian officials, while another northern city, Zhytomyr, was hit by missiles overnight, Ukrainian Ground Forces command said on Facebook.

In a separate statement, the agency said a residential building in the northern city of Chernihiv was on fire after being struck by a missile.

A fierce battle was underway Sunday in Kharkiv, where Russian troops blew up a natural gas pipeline before daybreak, according to the Ukrainian state agency.

“The Russian enemy’s light vehicles have broken into Kharkiv, including the city centre,” regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said, urging civillians to remain inside.

In a separate statement, the agency said a residential building in the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine was on fire after being struck by a missile.

Heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces erupted in Kharkiv following intensive overnight exchanges of rocket artillery, U.K.’s Ministry of Defense said in an update on Twitter.

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: What is Putin’s endgame?'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: What is Putin’s endgame?

Until Sunday, Russian troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 km (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, while other forces moved their offensive deeper into Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, in the capital Kyiv, where a curfew has been extended until Monday, clashes have subsided and Ukrainian forces were resisting the Russian offence.

“Russian forces are continuing to advance into Ukraine from multiple axis (sp) but are continuing to be met with stiff resistance from the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Britain’s defence ministry said.

The U.N. said Sunday evening that a Russian strike hit a radioactive waste disposal site in Kyiv overnight, but there no reports of damage to the buildings or indications of a release of radioactive material.

As of Sunday, both Kyiv and Kharkiv remained in Ukrainian hands.

The conflict has created a swell of refugees at European borders, with queues at crossings stretching for kilometres and nearly 400,000 people seeking safety abroad.

Women pass by the apartment block in 6A Lobanovsky Avenue which was hit with a missile on February 26, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Getty Images

After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Thursday from the north, east and south.

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Putin has justified the invasion, saying “neo-Nazis” rule Ukraine and threaten Russia’s security — a charge Kyiv and Western governments say is baseless propaganda.

Before invading, Putin had demanded that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO. However, the conflict has since brought the country closer to NATO allies, with European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen also saying the EU would like Ukraine to join its bloc.

“They’re one of us,” she told Euronews.

The 27-nation bloc on Sunday decided for the first time in its history to supply weapons to a country at war.

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For the first time since the start of the invasion, the Russian military said that some of its troops were killed and wounded in Ukraine, without mentioning any numbers.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Sunday that the Russian forces have hit 1,067 Ukrainian military facilities, including 27 command posts and communication centers, 38 air defense missile system and 56 radar stations.

At least 352 civilians, including 14 children, have been killed so far and 1,684 have been wounded, including 116 children, according to Ukraine’s health ministry.

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Ukraine, for its part, has claimed that its forces killed 3,500 Russian troops.

Claims from both sides have not been independently confirmed.

Airspace ban

As Europe’s largest ground war since the Second World War rages on, a Russian delegation of military officials and diplomats arrived in neighbouring Belarus offering talks with Ukraine.

Zelenskyy said his country was open to peace talks but had earlier rejected Russia’s offer, saying Belarus had been complicit in the invasion and instead suggested alternative locations.

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Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

In response to the Russian aggression, the United States, Canada and other NATO allies have sent weapons and other aid to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Canada announced an additional $25 million in non-lethal aid and airlift support on Sunday, while the U.K. has opened £40 million more and Australia has promised US$3 million.

NATO allies have also slapped Russia with a string of economic sanctions, freezing the assets of Russian businesses and individuals including Putin and his foreign minister. The Russian rouble plunged nearly 30 per cent to an all-time low versus the dollar on Monday.

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On Sunday, Canada, Germany, France, Spain and Italy joined the U.K., the Nordics and Baltic states in shutting their airspace to Russian planes.

“Effective immediately, Canada’s airspace is closed to all Russian aircraft operators,” Canada’s Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said on Twitter

“We will hold Russia accountable for its unprovoked attacks against Ukraine.”

— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press 

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