Kiev (AFP), March 9 – Russian troops moved closer to the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday as the two countries prepared for their first high-level talks since Moscow launched its deadly invasion two weeks ago.
As fighting raged for a 14th day, Russian forces advanced rapidly towards Kyiv, approaching Brovary, a large eastern suburb of the capital, AFP journalists noted.
“Russian tank columns yesterday took two villages a few kilometers away,” said Volodymyr, a 41-year-old resident of Velyka Dymerka, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Brovary.
“They shoot to scare people into staying at home, steal what they can to get supplies and settle among locals, so Ukrainian forces don’t bomb them.”
Fighting has intensified in the area as Ukrainian forces attempt to repel Russian tanks, residents and Ukrainian forces volunteers told AFP.
– US deploys equipment to Poland –
The United States said Wednesday it was redeploying two anti-aircraft batteries from Germany to Ukraine’s neighboring Poland, a Pentagon official said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky previously urged Western powers to act on a Polish offer to supply his country with fighter jets, after Washington rejected an initial plan deemed unviable.
“We ask you again to make up your mind as soon as possible. Send planes to us,” he said.
Russia’s war has sent an estimated 2.2 million refugees across Ukraine’s borders in what the UN has called Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, and has raised fears of a wider conflict.
Fears are growing that Russia is encircling Kyiv, where an orchestra performed in the city’s Maidan Square on Wednesday in a morale-boosting concert that included the European anthem “Ode to Joy”.
– Evacuation truce –
Elsewhere, Russia and Ukraine had agreed to open more humanitarian corridors on Wednesday to evacuate terrified civilians from bombed towns.
Safe routes opened up from five Ukrainian areas, including the suburbs of the capital Kyiv, which were devastated by Russian bombings and airstrikes.
Moscow has pledged to observe a 12-hour truce from 9 a.m. to allow civilians to flee six areas heavily affected by the fighting, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has said.
For the first time, the corridors included Irpin, Bucha and Gostomel, a cluster of towns on the northwestern outskirts of Kiev that have been largely occupied by Russian forces.
A corridor has also been agreed for the port city of Mariupol, where several previous evacuations failed, leaving thousands of people without water or electricity since Friday.
Violence raged in other areas, with 17 staff injured in an airstrike on a children’s hospital in the eastern city of Mariupol, an official said.
At least 10 people were killed in a Russian military attack on houses and other buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonestk on Tuesday, a local official in the Lugansk region said in a statement on Telegram.
– Chernobyl “completely disconnected” –
The invasion has raised nuclear concerns, with Ukraine saying on Wednesday that power had been cut at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, which was seized by Russian forces.
The disused power plant, housing decommissioned reactors and radioactive waste facilities seized by Russia at the start of the war, “has been completely disconnected from the power grid”, Ukrainian energy operator Ukrenergo said.
The UN’s atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said while the development breached a ‘key security pillar’ it saw ‘no critical security impact’ in Chernobyl.
Russia also attacked and seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, last week, drawing accusations of “nuclear terror” from Kiev.
– ‘Economic war against Russia’ –
Western allies have hit Russia with unprecedented sanctions, with the United States announcing restrictions on oil imports on Tuesday that help fund Moscow’s war machine.
The spike in energy prices caused by the Russian war in Ukraine will produce effects comparable to the oil shock of 1973, warned French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire.
The EU agreed on Wednesday to add more Russian oligarchs to the sanctions blacklist and remove three Belarusian banks from the SWIFT global payment system over Minsk’s support for the Kremlin attack.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has called on the entire G7 to ban imports of Russian oil.
A corporate boycott has also developed, with Dutch brewery Heineken and Universal Music joining McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Starbucks among major brands in suspending operations in Russia.
The Kremlin, pressed to impose measures to limit the economic fallout, retaliated by accusing the United States of having “declared economic war on Russia”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed the “neutralization” and “denazification” of pro-Western Ukraine and lifted Russia’s nuclear alert.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said ‘progress has been made’ in three rounds of talks with Kyiv officials, adding that Moscow’s troops were not trying to ‘overthrow’ the Ukrainian government.
– No no-fly zone –
Western governments have balked at the Ukrainian president’s calls for a no-fly zone to defend Ukrainian skies, fearing it could spark a conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.
“The prospect of fighter jets (…) departing from a US-NATO base in Germany to fly into disputed airspace with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the whole of the world. NATO alliance,” spokesman John Kirby said.
The West has instead relied on funneling arms and aid to Ukraine.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on Wednesday that his country had delivered 3,615 NLAW anti-tank weapons and would soon start shipping a “small batch” of Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his country will send an additional $50 million worth of military equipment to help Ukraine.
– Conferences Thursday –
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba were due to meet in southern Turkey on Thursday, their first such meeting since the invasion.
Kuleba confirmed in a Facebook video that he was preparing to meet Lavrov on Thursday, warning that his expectations were “limited”.