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Bombs hit Ukrainian cities as Russian economy sinks

Fears are growing that an increasingly cornered Russian President Vladimir Putin will escalate the war in Ukraine and fight back against Western powers that are hitting him with a massive economic attack.

(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.

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On top of that, Germany's new government — a coalition of center-left Social Democrats, the hawkish Greens and business friendly Free Democrats — closed Nord Stream 2, a controversial natural gas pipeline Russia hoped to use to bring even more gas to Europe via the Baltic Sea in order to bypass its historic gas lines that run through Ukraine. 

Perennially neutral Switzerland announced Monday it will go along with the West's sanctions and honor them by freezing Russian assets. Russia and its fabulously wealthy business and elite class, known as oligarchs, keep vast sums in Switzerland.  

In addition, the EU and the United Kingdom have closed off air space to all Russian airplanes and they're talking about investigating the bank accounts and assets of Russian oligarchs, who are accused of amassing vast fortunes through ill-gotten means. Russia is one of the world's most corrupt nations.  

Josep Borrell, the EU's top foreign diplomat, described the EU's countermeasures against the Kremlin as a geopolitical earthquake.  

This is “a turning point on the history of European integration because until now it was considered that the European Union would be a peace union, not a military union, and not be allowed to supply arms to a third country,” Borrell said Monday at a news conference. “That's what we are doing now. This is another taboo that falls.”  

He said the EU is compelled by Putin's war to build up of its military prowess. For years, European leaders have held vigorous debates about the need to strengthen its geopolitical might by becoming more assertive militarily. The EU has struggled in recent years with a number of crises and wars at its unstable borders and it has felt helpless in the global feud between the United States and China.  

“We are turning a page in the history of the European integration and also in the history of Europe in the post-World War and the post-Cold War,” Borrell said. “The relations with Russia will no more be determined by trade.”  

Borrell said Putin's brutal war against Ukraine was beyond the pale.  

“The Russian military campaign is becoming more and more reckless,” he said.  

He said the EU has a duty to come to Ukraine's aid with weapons, medicine and other needs, such as taking in the growing numbers of Ukrainian refugees. Up to 4.5 million Ukrainians may flee the country unless the fighting stops soon, the United Nations estimates.  

“Ukrainian armed forces are fighting back with courage, Kyiv resists,” Borrell said.  

In another first, Borrell said the EU will begin supplying Ukraine with its satellite intelligence capabilities to help Kyiv get a better grasp of Russia's military moves. On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy formally sent a letter to the EU asking to become a member. The EU says it will consider a process to speed up its inclusion into the bloc.  

Borrell said the EU is worried about Russia taking aim at other nations where the Kremlin is in territorial disputes and has stationed its troops, namely Georgia and Moldova.  

Also, Borrell said 500 additional EU peacekeeping soldiers will be deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Balkan country where the pro-Russian Serb population under the leader Milorad Dodik are threatening to unravel that volatile country's fragile peace by divorcing themselves from national institutions.  

He accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an autocrat like his counterpart in the Kremlin, of joining forces with Putin in destabilizing European peace. Belarus is taking steps to allow Russia to place nuclear weapons on its territory, nearly 30 years after they were removed following the breakup of the Soviet Union.  

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Belarus is beginning to enter the Ukraine war too, allowing Russian troops to invade Ukraine from its territory. And there were reports Lukashenko might deploy Belarusian soldiers.  

“We have no other choice but to stand together as the European Union in support of Ukraine,” Borrell said.  

He said this new aggressive approach by the EU will mean making sacrifices as the union shuts off relations with Russia. The West's sanctions exempt oil and gas imports for Europe, but fuel prices continue to rise sharply in Europe and are contributing to fears over inflation.  

“This is going to have a price. It is not a free lunch. Sanctions will backlash. Sanctions have a cost,” Borrell said. “We have to be ready to pay this price now, because if not we will have to pay a much bigger price in the future.”  

Of course, Russia's 145 million people will pay a far higher price for their country's military invasion. To stabilize the economy, the central bank raised the interest rate from 9.5% to 20%.  

“The Russian industry is going to tank, normal industry can't work at such a rate,” Felgenhauer said. “That means there is going to be a recession in Russia. That's going to hit the population very seriously, there's going to be shortages.”  

He said the crisis will only get worse as incomes, savings and imports dry up.  

“Companies are refusing to bring containers to Russia. We won't be having bananas but we won't also be having” the ingredients for making “generic medicines,” he said.  

Eventually, he said Putin's wild gamble to invade Ukraine — and stop it from becoming a NATO member — will cause political strife at home.  

“There's going to be serious discontent in the coming months, coupled with a war that doesn't seem very popular and not very successful,” he said. “People are sitting about in frustration because their lives are crumbling about them.”  

He added: “There is some anti-war movement, it's not yet very big, but it is there and that is also eating into the internal political stability. Right now, it is not yet a political problem for the Kremlin, but it could soon become one because all these things are adding up.”  

Adding to Russia's agony: European and international soccer federations decided to boot the country's teams from tournaments on Monday.  

In New York City, meanwhile, the Ukrainian and Russian ambassadors to the United Nations clashed fiercely over the facts of the war at an emergency General Assembly meeting on Monday.  

“Big militarized power seeking for geopolitical greatness has launched a full-fledged military offensive against a smaller neighbor aimed at invading the country,” said Ukraine's ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, as he opened his speech, one that would center on allegations that Putin is a modern-day Adolf Hitler.  

“Deadly air strikes dropped on civilians has happened across the entire country and the Russian troops crossed Ukraine's borders from the territory of Russia, Belarus and the occupied parts of Ukraine's Donbas and Crimea,” he continued. “Does this remind you of something? Doesn't it? Indeed, very clear parallels could be drawn with the beginning of the Second World War and Russia's cause of action is very similar to what their spiritual mentors from the Third Reich employed on the Ukrainian land 80 years ago.”  

He accused Russia of shelling Kharkiv with rockets and killing innocent civilians. He lashed out at Putin for putting his troops on high nuclear alert and raising the specter of nuclear war.  

“What madness? If he wants to kill himself he doesn't need to use nuclear arsenal. He needs to do what the guy in Berlin did in the bunker in May 1945,” Kyslytsya said, alluding to Hitler's suicide as Germany collapsed in defeat.  

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He dismissed Russia's allegations that Ukraine was at fault for the war due to its unwillingness to reach a settlement with Russia and pro-Russian rebels in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.  

“The only guilty party is the Russian Federation,” he said.  

He said Russia's all-out attack is set to become fiercer as it deploys fresh reserve units and “fires cruise and ballistic missiles at cities” while it “sends subversion and reconnaissance groups which mark residential buildings in preparation for the air attacks.”  

“Russia's missiles are now aimed at destroying the infrastructure objects they targeted,” he said.  

Airports, ports, oil depots, water reservoirs, bridges and other infrastructure have been targeted and destroyed by Russian forces. He said some towns are “nearly destroyed.”  

He accused Russia of attacking two civilian vessels in the Black Sea, striking kindergartens, orphanages, hospitals, biomedical brigades and shelling ambulance crews. In one attack, he accused Russian tanks of shooting a bus with civilians. 

He said a total of 352 Ukrainians, including 16 children, have been killed so far and that 2,014 , including 45 children, have been wounded.  Ukraine claims more than 5,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, a number that cannot be verified. Russia has not said how many of its troops have been killed, but says that Ukrainian losses are far superior than its.

“Now it is time to act, time to help Ukraine,” he said. “It is paying now the ultimate price for freedom and security of itself and the world. If Ukraine does not survive, international peace will not survive. If Ukraine does not survive, the United Nations will not survive, have no illusions.”  

U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of Russia shot back with a litany of allegations against Ukraine and accused it of failing to carry out a 2015 peace deal over the disputed Donbas region, known as the Minsk Agreements.  

“The root of the current crisis lies in the actions of Ukraine itself,” he said. “For many years it sabotaged and flouted its direct obligations under the Minsk package of measures.”  

He said Ukraine's refusal to negotiate with separatists in Donbas and initiate a process to allow the regions to gain more autonomy from the central government in Kyiv led to the escalation. The region was the scene of intense fighting in 2014 and 2015 and occasional shelling, sniper attacks and other violence became a part of everyday life along a frontline that resembled a World War I battlefield with trenches and bombed-out towns.

Before Russia's invasion, about 14,000 people had been killed in the Donbas conflict and 2 million people were forced to leave their homes with about 700,000 fleeing to safety in Ukraine and the rest in Russia. The regions are occupied by many ethnic Russians, who make up about 17% of Ukraine's total population of 44 million people.  

Russia accuses Ukraine of escalating the fight in recent months and planning to retake the regions through a blitzkrieg operation.  

“The Ukrainian authorities, which of late have been actively armed and incited by a number of states, were under the misconception that with the indulgence of Western patrons and sponsors they would be able to address the issues in Donbas militarily,” the Russian ambassador said.  

He said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has the purpose of ending the Donbas war and protecting ethnic Russians there.  

“The worsening of the suffering of the residents of Donbas is something that has left Western sponsors unmoved in recent years,” he said. “There was no empathy whatsoever, no compassion for the people of Donbas and Luhansk; it seems that these 4 million people simply don't exist for them.”  

“The goal of this special operation is to protect the people who for eight years were subjected to torment and genocide by the Kyiv regime and to that end there is a need to de-militarize and de-Nazify Ukraine,” he said.  

Russia accuses far-right neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine of using the Maidan protests in 2014 to overthrow the government of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president who angered many Ukrainians by scrapping a deal to draw his country closer to the EU. Experts say there is clear evidence that neo-Nazi groups played key roles in the Maidan Revolution.  

Experts, though, say the violence in Donbas does not amount to genocide, as Russia accuses.  

In addition, Nebenzia said Russia could not sit back and not act because Zelenskyy had spoken on Feb. 18 at the Munich Security Conference, an annual meeting on geopolitics, about the wish to make Ukraine a nuclear power again.  

“This statement, I would recall, was met with applause by the participants of this conference,” he said.  

He also called Ukraine's drive to become a NATO member a “red line” for Russia and a threat to its security.  

“The deployment of NATO infrastructure in that country would compel us to adopt measures in response and this has placed us at the verge of conflict,” he said.  

“Our Western colleagues have shamelessly inundated the country with weapons, have sent to the country instructors and effectively incited Ukrainians” to fight over the Donbas, he accused. “Thereby, the Western countries have created a bubble that cannot but pop.”  

He accused the West of backing a coup d'etat against Yanukovych, sweeping investigations into atrocities committed during the uprising “under the rug” and allowing Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution to persecute the pro-Russian opposition, including the shuttering of opposition television channels and jailing opposition political figures.  

“The country was flooded with weapons which were then turned on peaceful civilians in Donbas,” he said. “The responsibility for what's taking place right now lies at the feet of the current Ukrainian leadership as well as their Western colleagues.”  

During the current war, he accused Ukraine of spreading “lies about indiscriminate shelling” and using civilians “as human shields” by placing military equipment in residential areas. He called decisions by Zelenskyy to release prisoners to help in the fight against Russia and the handing out of 25,000 automatic rifles to the general public in Kyiv demonstrations of the “recklessness of the Kyiv regime.”  

He said so-called civilian territorial defenders shot at a car, killing a couple and their girl.  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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