Ukraine and Russia envoys talk under shadow of nuclear threat

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian and Ukrainian officials met for talks on Monday amid high hopes but low expectations for any diplomatic breakthrough, after Moscow faced surprisingly strong resistance when it launched the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.

Armament-overwhelmed Ukrainian forces managed to slow the Russian advance and Western sanctions began to weigh on the Russian economy, but the Kremlin again raised the specter of nuclear war, signaling that its nuclear forces land, air and sea were on high alert after President Vladimir Putin’s weekend. ordered.

Intensifying his rhetoric, Putin denounced the United States and its allies as an “empire of lies”.

A tense calm reigned in Kyiv, where people lined up to buy food, water and pet food after two nights trapped indoors by a strict curfew, but video on social networks Socials of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, showed bombed-out residential areas, with apartment buildings rocked by repeated and powerful explosions. Authorities in Kharkiv said at least seven people were killed and dozens injured. They warned that the losses could be much higher.

“They wanted to do a blitzkrieg, but it failed, so they did it that way,” said 83-year-old Valentin Petrovich, who said he watched the shelling from his downtown apartment. He spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, fearing for his safety.

The Russian military has denied targeting residential areas despite ample evidence of shelling homes, schools and hospitals.

Across the country, terrified families huddled overnight in shelters, basements or hallways.

“I sit down and pray that these negotiations will end successfully, that they will come to an agreement to end the massacre, and that there will be no more war,” said Alexandra Mikhailova, crying as she hugged her cat in a makeshift shelter in the strategic southeast. port city of Mariupol. Around her, the parents tried to console the children and keep them warm.

The UN human rights chief said at least 102 civilians had been killed and hundreds injured in more than four days of fighting – warning that figure is likely an undercount – and the Ukrainian president said at least 16 children were among the dead.

More than half a million people have fled the country since the invasion, another UN official said, many of whom have traveled to Poland, Romania and Hungary. And millions have left their homes.

Still, a glimmer of hope emerged as the first face-to-face talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials since the war began on Monday. The delegations gathered around a long table with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said it would demand an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops.

But while Ukraine sent its defense minister and other top officials, the Russian delegation was led by Putin’s culture adviser – an unlikely envoy to end the war and perhaps a sign of seriousness. with which Moscow is considering talks.

In addition, the United Nations General Assembly, made up of 193 nations, opened its first emergency session in decades in order to deal with the invasion of Ukraine, Assembly President Abdulla Shahid, calling for an immediate ceasefire, maximum restraint by all parties and “a full return to diplomacy”. and dialogue.”

Putin is not completely isolated and has spoken to a series of heads of state in recent days, including a 90-minute call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who called for a truce. He also spoke to the leaders of Israel, Armenia and other nations.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Central Bank rushed to shore up ruble tanking, and the United States and European countries increased their arms shipments to Ukraine. While they hope to curb Putin’s aggression, the measures also risked pushing an increasingly cornered Putin closer to the edge – and inflicting pain on ordinary Russians.

In Moscow, people lined up to withdraw cash as sanctions threatened their livelihoods and savings.

It was not immediately clear what Putin was looking for in the talks or in the war itself, although Western officials believe he wants to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with his own regime, rekindling Moscow’s influence in the war. Cold War era.

The Russian leader clearly linked the tightening of sanctions to his decision on Sunday to raise Russia’s nuclear stance. He also cited “aggressive statements” from NATO.

Moscow’s Defense Ministry said additional personnel had been deployed to Russia’s nuclear forces and the high alert applied to nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and long-range bombers.

A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Monday, said the United States had yet to see any appreciable change in Russia’s nuclear stance.

It was not immediately clear if nuclear planes were in the air around Ukraine.

US and UK officials have downplayed Putin’s nuclear threat as posturing. But for many, the move brought back memories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and fears the West could be drawn into direct conflict with Russia.

In another potential escalation, neighboring Belarus could send troops to help Russia as early as Monday, according to a senior US intelligence official with direct knowledge of US intelligence assessments. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Western officials say they believe the invasion has been slower, at least so far, than the Kremlin had anticipated. British authorities said the bulk of Putin’s forces were about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Kiev.

Messages aimed at these soldiers appeared on billboards, bus stops and electronic signs across Kyiv on Monday. Some used profanity to encourage the Russians to leave. Others appealed to their humanity.

“Russian soldier – Stop! Remember your family. Go home with a clear conscience,” it read.

In other battles, strategic ports in the south of the country were attacked by Russian forces. Mariupol, on the Sea of ​​Azov, is “hanging on”, said Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich. An oil depot was reportedly bombed in the eastern city of Sumy. Ukrainian demonstrators demonstrated against the encroachment of Russian troops in the port of Berdyansk.

With the Ukrainian capital of nearly 3 million under siege, the Russian military has offered to allow residents to leave Kiev through a safe corridor.

In a war waged both on the ground and online, cyberattacks have hit Ukrainian embassies around the world and Russian media.

Western nations have increased the pressure with a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves, threatening to bring the Russian economy to its knees. The United States, the European Union and Britain have also agreed to block certain Russian banks from the SWIFT system, which facilitates the transfer of money between thousands of banks and other financial institutions around the world.

In addition to the sanctions, the United States and Germany announced that they would send Stinger missiles and other military supplies to Ukraine. The European Union – founded to secure peace on the continent after World War II – is providing lethal aid, including anti-tank weapons, for the first time.

EU defense ministers were due to meet on Monday to discuss how to get weapons to Ukraine. A train loaded with Czech equipment arrived on Sunday and another was on its way on Monday, although blocking such shipments is clearly a key priority for Russia.

CORRECTION: At least one Western country is considering a request from Ukraine to supply fighter jets, and EU money will not be used. An earlier version of this story citing incorrect information provided by an EU official, misrepresented the response details to provide fighter jets.

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