Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
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Fighting rages on in Ukraine as talks with Russia begin

Talks between Russia and Ukraine open Monday amid skepticism that they would produce any breakthrough to halt Europe’s biggest ground war in 75 years.

Talks between Russia and Ukraine opened Monday amid skepticism that they would produce any breakthrough to halt Europe’s biggest ground war in 75 years, as Ukrainian fighters continued to fend off the capture of key cities, Russian missiles pounded targets and hundreds of thousands of people fled the country.

Delegations from Kyiv and Moscow met Monday morning at a site near Ukraine’s border with Belarus. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had agreed to the negotiations Sunday, despite seeing “small chance to end the war,” and said the fate of his country as an independent nation had now entered a “crucial period.”

In Kyiv, a two-day-long curfew was lifted Monday to allow residents to venture out cautiously to replenish supplies, get some fresh air and survey the state of their city of 3 million people. Many lined up for hours outside gas stations and supermarkets, mostly ignoring the occasional wail of air-raid sirens.

Fighting continued on the outskirts of the capital, with satellite images showing Russian troops mostly massed about 19 miles north of the city, according to the British government. No major population centers have yet fallen to Russian forces, which has raised fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will soon order an all-out blitz to overrun Ukraine, depose its government and turn it into a vassal state.

Zelensky once again called on his compatriots to defend their land.

“When I planned to become a president, I said that each of us is the president, because we are all responsible for our state, for our beautiful Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video address Monday, the latest in a series of public messages that has buoyed and drawn the admiration of many of his people. “Now it has happened that each of us is a warrior. ... And I am confident that each of us will win.”

But half a million Ukrainians have now fled their war-torn country, said Filippo Grandi, the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency. At most recent count, about 281,000 people had entered Poland from Ukraine, more than 84,500 had escaped to Hungary and nearly 100,000 had arrived in Romania, Moldova and Slovakia, the agency said. The remainder had found their way to other countries.

There were signs of stress in Russia as well, with the heavy sanctions imposed by the U.S., Europe and other nations, including Japan and Australia, beginning to take a toll. The ruble plummeted in value against the dollar, the Russian stock market did not open Monday and residents lined up at ATMs for fear of being stranded without cash.

To prop up the ruble and prevent a run on financial institutions, Russia’s central bank more than doubled interest rates Monday. But hours later, the White House announced that the U.S. had activated new sanctions that cut off the central bank from accessing any assets either in the U.S. or in U.S. dollars. The ban also targets Russia’s Ministry of Finance and National Wealth Fund.

Pessimism attended Monday’s talks between Ukrainian and Russian representatives, which Moscow had originally insisted be held in Belarus. Zelensky’s government rejected that demand, pointing out that Russian troops had used Belarus as a staging ground to invade Ukraine from the north.

Indeed, a U.S. official told the Associated Press that Belarusian troops could join their Russian counterparts on the ground in Ukraine as early as Monday. Kyiv lies barely 50 miles south of the border.

The U.S. government suspended operations Monday at its embassy in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and urged nonessential staff there to leave the country. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the embassy was being closed because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which Belarus has aided.

About 10 a.m. Monday, video uploaded to social media showed a pair of helicopters delivering Ukraine’s delegates to the talks in Belarus’ Gomel region, near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Another video showed them and their Russian interlocutors sitting at a long desk inside an ornate hall.

International discussions are also expected in New York, where the United Nations General Assembly, comprising all 193 member states of the world body, are scheduled to convene in a rare emergency session Monday morning to discuss Russia’s invasion. Russia had tried to block the meeting, but 11 of the Security Council’s 15 members voted for it.

Aliona Konvai stands with a cardboard sign outside the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz on Sunday.
(Dan Evans / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In Geneva, the U.N.’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said her office had confirmed the deaths of 102 Ukrainian civilians — including seven children — in the war, mostly in explosions from artillery fire, rockets and airstrikes. She cautioned that the number was likely a vast undercount.

“The real figures are, I fear, considerably higher,” Bachelet told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday.

In his video address, Zelensky said 16 Ukrainian children had died. He also said more than 4,500 Russian troops had been killed since the invasion began in earnest Thursday, but independent verification has not been possible. Moscow has not issued any casualty figures.

Near the northern entrance of Kyiv, militiamen organized by the far-right Svoboda party Monday answered Zelensky’s call to defend their country. To justify Russia’s assault, Putin has alleged that Ukraine is ruled by “neo-Nazis” bent on committing genocide against the country’s ethnic Russians, most of whom live in the east.

Svoboda rejects accusations of fascism, saying that as nationalists their interest is to defend Ukraine, while critics of the group say that in any case it has only one seat in parliament and hardly represents the mainstream. Regardless, with Ukraine under attack, the group’s organizational and combat abilities are being put to use.

In Kyiv’s Obolon neighborhood, on a cold but sunny Monday morning, Svoboda militia members gouged out trenches in the grass-covered sidewalks, setting up machine guns on one side and a double-barreled anti-aircraft cannon on the other.

“We picked that one up from the Russians,” said Peter Kuzyk, head of Svoboda’s Kyiv branch.

Standing with a shiny black automatic rifle outfitted with a heat-vision scope, Kuzyk paused, offering his opinion on the negotiations.

“Our president must tell the Russians to get out, without any conditions or obstacles,” he said. But he added that he expected nothing to come out of the talks: “Agreements with Russia are cheaper than the paper they’re on.”

Nearby, 17-year-old Sviatoslav Syrotyuk, a student at Kyiv University, was among the men and a few women trying to erect a makeshift road barrier to repel a Russian incursion into the city.

“I understand what I need to do in war,” the aspiring archaeologist said, explaining that he had learned to handle guns at summer camp. “It’s beautiful that I can take the weapon and defend the country. Besides, my best friend is also here.”

Zelensky praised the Western sanctions on Russia, and called on the European Union to initiate a special procedure allowing Ukraine to immediately join the 27-nation bloc.

“We are grateful to our partners for being with us, but our goal is to be with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be equal,” he said.

Such an expedited accession is extremely unlikely. But the EU has been vocal in its support for Ukraine and, in a historic first, agreed over the weekend to help arm the country in its resistance against Russian aggression.

“Another taboo has fallen, the taboo that the EU was not providing arms in a war,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said Sunday. “Yes, we are doing it.... This war requires our engagement in order to support the Ukrainian army.”

Bulos reported from Kyiv and Chu from London. Times staff writers Eli Stokols and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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