Ukraine and Russia envoys talk under shadow of nuclear threat

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The lifeless body of a young girl killed in the shelling of a residential neighborhood lies on a medical cart at the hospital in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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The Russian and Ukrainian delegations met for talks on Monday amid high hopes but low expectations for any diplomatic breakthrough, after Moscow unleashed Europe’s biggest ground war since World War II but met surprisingly resistance. strong.

As overwhelmed but determined Ukrainian forces slowed the Russian advance and sanctions crippled the Russian economy, the military confirmed that its nuclear forces were on high alert, as ordered by President Vladimir Putin. Although this raises the unimaginable specter of nuclear conflict, it is unclear what practical effect this had.

A tense calm reigned in Kiev on Monday, where people lined up to buy food and water after two nights stuck indoors by curfew. Explosions and gunshots were heard in besieged towns in eastern Ukraine, and 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. Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Around her, the parents tried to console the children and keep them warm.

The exact death toll is unclear, but the UN human rights chief said 102 civilians had been killed and hundreds injured in five days of fighting – warning the figure was likely a wide undercount – and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead. More than 500,000 people have fled the country since the invasion, another UN official said on Monday, among millions who have left their homes.

Still, a small 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 a sign of how Moscow consider the talks.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Central Bank rushed to shore up the ruble, 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.

Russia’s increasingly erratic leader made a clear connection between tougher sanctions and his decision on Sunday to raise Russia’s nuclear stance. He also pointed to NATO’s “aggressive statements”, a reference to its long-standing position that the US-led alliance is an existential threat to Russia.

On Monday, the Ministry of Defense said that additional personnel had been deployed to the Russian nuclear forces and that the high alert status applied to all their components: the forces which oversee land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missiles intercontinental aircraft launched by submarines and the fleet of nuclear-capable strategic bombers.

It was not immediately clear whether the Kremlin’s announcement meant a nuclear plane could already be in the air around Ukraine. But the move is a clear escalation.

While Russia and the United States generally have nuclear land and submarine forces ready for combat at all times, bombers and other nuclear-capable aircraft do not.

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

Putin also stepped up his rhetoric on Monday, denouncing the United States and its allies as an “empire of lies.” He described Western allies as “American satellites who humbly flatter him, bow down to him, copy his conduct and happily accept the rules.”

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

US officials say they believe the invasion was more difficult and slower than the Kremlin anticipated, although that may change as Moscow adapts. The British Ministry of Defense said on Monday that the bulk of Putin’s forces were about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Kiev, as their advance had been slowed by Ukrainian forces.

Battles also broke out in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the south of the country were attacked by Russian forces. Mariupol, a strategic port city 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.

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. Russians withdrew their savings and sought to dump rubles for dollars and euros, while Russian businesses scrambled to protect their finances.

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 sanctions, the United States and Germany announced they would send Stinger missiles to Ukraine among other military supplies. The European Union – founded to secure peace on the continent after World War II – is providing lethal aid for the first time, including anti-tank weapons and ammunition. At least one Western country is considering a request from Ukraine to supply fighter jets, a European official said. She spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not yet public.

EU defense ministers were due to meet on Monday to discuss how to get the promised weaponry 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.

It remains to be seen to what extent the weaponry will help Ukraine fend off Russia’s vastly larger arsenal.

In New York, the 193 members of the UN General Assembly scheduled an emergency session on Monday on the Russian invasion.

With the Ukrainian capital under siege, the Russian military offered to allow residents to leave Kiev through a safe corridor. The mayor of the city of nearly 3 million people had previously expressed doubts about the evacuation of civilians.

Ukrainian authorities distributed weapons to anyone willing to defend the city. Ukraine also releases prisoners with military experience who want to fight and trains people to make firebombs.

In Mariupol, where the Ukrainians were trying to repel an attack, a medical team from a city hospital desperately tried to resuscitate a 6-year-old girl in unicorn pajamas who was fatally injured in a Russian bombardment.

During the rescue attempt, a doctor in a blue medical gown, pumping oxygen into the girl, looked directly at the Associated Press video camera capturing the scene.

“Show that to Putin,” he said angrily. “The eyes of this child and the doctors who cry.”

Their resuscitation efforts failed and the girl lay dead on a stretcher, covered by her blood spattered jacket.

Nearly 900 kilometers (560 miles) away, Faina Bystritska was under threat in the town of Chernihiv.

“I wish I had never lived to see this,” said Bystritska, an 87-year-old Jewish World War II survivor.

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This story has been corrected to show that the EU will not supply fighter jets to Ukraine. An EU official misspoke. At least one Western country is considering a request from Ukraine to supply fighter jets; EU money will not be used.

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Isachenkov and Litvinova reported from Moscow. Ellen Knickmeyer, Eric Tucker, Robert Burns and Hope Yen in Washington; James LaPorta in Miami; Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; Mstyslav Chernov and Nic Dumitrache in Mariupol, Ukraine; Lorne Cook in Brussels; and other AP reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Christi C. Elwood