(CN) — The shelling of Ukrainian cities intensified on Monday as Ukraine and Russia exchanged accusations about war crimes and blamed each other for starting a war that has brought the world to the brink of a global catastrophe.
In Moscow, an increasingly ensnared and desperate Russian President Vladimir Putin faces stark and potentially even more explosive decisions about what his next move will be, raising concerns that he may opt for further escalation rather than admit defeat.
“The fact that Putin is turning into a pariah on the international stage makes him even more dangerous and unpredictable,” said Andrius Tursa, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, in a briefing note.
Signs of Putin revving up his war machine were evident Monday after Russia stepped up its missile campaign on Ukrainian cities. The loudest explosions yet heard struck in Kyiv, the capital, and videos showed the potential use of cluster bombs in a residential area of Kharkiv, the country's second largest city. Media reported that seven civilians were killed and 44 people wounded in that attack.
A first round of ceasefire talks, meanwhile, were held at a Belarusian border town where Ukrainian and Russian delegations stared down each other at a long table. Both sides said there were points they could agree on and that the talks would resume in a few days.
Russia is coming under a crippling economic assault by Western powers that took a kind of shock-and-awe approach by freezing the assets of Russia's central bank, a step that potentially leaves Putin unable to access about half of the $640 billion in reserves.
Russia has built up those reserves in response to being hit by massive sanctions after the Ukraine crisis started in 2014, when it annexed Crimea following the so-called “Maidan Revolution,” a U.S.-backed uprising that ousted Ukraine's democratically elected pro-Russian president.
“It was believed that Russia could weather the storm with sanctions having some effect further on, but not immediately,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense and military analyst in Moscow who also writes columns for Novaya Gazeta, a highly respected Russian newspaper.
But he said the decision by the United States to hit Russia's central bank so quickly was unexpected.
“It turns out differently,” Felgenhauer said, speaking to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel. “In Moscow, there was panic in the city, the ruble was in free fall, the central bank somewhat managed to stabilize the situation.”
Jeevun Sandher, a political scientist at King's College London, said during the same discussion on Al Jazeera that the West's sanctions may prove to be Putin's undoing.
“These sanctions are clear, punitive and overwhelming,” he said. “We should be clear that as of this morning the Russian economy is in crisis, the ruble is crashing, inflation will increase, bank runs we are also seeing. Russia is fundamentally much poorer this morning than it was yesterday.”
Since Putin launched his invasion five days ago, the European Union has taken unprecedented, game-changing steps to counter Russia, a superpower with a complex web of relationships to the bloc's 27 member states.
In the past few days, the EU has all but declared economic and even military war on Russia, steps that are fundamentally shifting the union's basic building blocks and propelling itself to become not only an economic superpower but also a military one.
On Sunday, the EU for the first time decided to arm a nation outside the union as it announced 450 million euros ($504 million) in military support for Ukraine.
Earlier Germany — a country that had until now maintained good relations with Russia — announced it was lifting a ban on arms sales to Ukraine. Berlin also did a U-turn and backed kicking Russian banks and businesses out of the dollar-based international banking system. The United States and other Western allies have backed these punitive measures against Putin.