Sunday, November 27, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Russian forces advance on Kyiv, face stiff opposition

A fierce battle for control of Kyiv is taking place between Russian and Ukrainian forces as the Kremlin seeks to seize the capital and remove Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from power.

(CN) — Russian and Ukrainian forces were engaged in bitter combat in the capital Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine on Friday with casualties mounting in a war that has put Europe and the rest of the world on edge. 

By nightfall Friday, Russian troops were entering Kyiv, a city of about 3 million, but were reportedly facing stiff opposition from regular troops, militia groups and armed civilians, raising the prospect of drawn-out and bloody guerrilla warfare, potentially backed by the United States and the CIA, which reportedly has been training Ukrainians since 2015 for an insurgency against Russia in the event of an invasion like this.   

The state of the conflict remained highly uncertain due to spotty reporting from the field, but it appeared the far-superior Russian army was making advances in the north, east and south and focusing its attention on Kyiv and the eastern regions where the bulk of the fighting was taking place.   

It has become increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to remove Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from power and install a new pro-Russian regime in Kyiv, one that his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said needs to represent all the people of Ukraine. 

“According to the information we have, the enemy has marked me as target No. 1, my family as target No. 2,” Zelenskyy said during an early morning address where he urged Ukrainians to keep fighting. “They want to damage Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”   

In the speech, Zelenskyy blasted Western powers for not doing enough to stop the Russian invasion and his government called on its citizens to take up arms and make Molotov cocktails to stop Russian tanks from rolling into Kyiv. It also banned all males between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country as it attempted to conduct a mass conscription.  

Zelenskyy remained in Kyiv and in a video on social media Friday night urged his compatriots to fight “for the glory of Ukraine.” He said he wasn’t going to be a “traitor.” 

Reports from news outlets, social media and officials showed horrific images of explosions, dead soldiers and civilians, burning buildings, blown up infrastructure such as bridges and oil tanks, downed aircraft, a barrage of artillery and other horrors.

The civilian population was hunkering down in basements, apartment buildings and bunkers and fleeing the conflict. Media showed chaotic scenes of thousands of people trying to flee on trains and cars from Kyiv on Thursday and early Friday before the Russian advance. 

Russia has said it is not targeting civilians, but numerous civilians have been killed, according to news reports.   

A family sit in a subway used as a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

“There is already evidence of civilian deaths and much suffering, with thousands of people displaced as they leave their homes to seek safety,” the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a news release. The OSCE, an observer group during conflicts, said fatal incidents include a ballistic missile strike and a bomb that struck a residential block.     

Friday was the second day of clashes after Putin launched the invasion in the early hours of Thursday. It is viewed as the largest military operation since the end of World War II in Europe, though Europe did experience extreme bloodshed during the Balkans Wars of the 1990s.    

The number of casualties continued to mount, though it remained extremely difficult to provide a reliable death toll. The Ukrainian army said it had killed about 2,800 Russian soldiers and destroyed 80 tanks, more than 500 armored vehicles, more than 500 aircraft and seven helicopters, according to Interfax-Ukraine.   

ADVERTISEMENT

Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that 200 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in a fight over the key Gostomel airport in Kyiv and that another 200 had been killed in eastern Ukraine.   

The Ukrainian army said it was putting up a strong resistance to the Russian invasion, but Kyiv pleaded for more help from the West.  

“The invasion of Russia into Ukraine is not just an invasion, it's the beginning of the war against Europe,” Zelenskyy said, beseeching NATO forces to come to his aid. “Against the unity of Europe. Against basic human rights in Europe. Against all rules of coexistence on the continent … What are you going to do about it? How are you going to defend yourselves if you are so slow helping us in Ukraine?”  

NATO has said it will not send troops, but pressure was building on the West to provide more help and even commit troops. Doing so risks sparking a much wider conflict between nuclear powers. NATO shipped considerable amounts of weapons to Ukraine in the buildup to the invasion and those arms, such as anti-tank missiles, are believed to be inflicting a lot of damage on Russian forces. Romania, Poland and other NATO countries bordering or near Ukraine are taking in refugees and boosted their troop levels.     

Russia has portrayed this full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” for the “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. 

Putin said he launched this increasingly bloody and catastrophic offensive against Ukraine to stop the country from becoming a nuclear-armed NATO member and to put an end to an eight-year-long simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. 

Firefighters inspect the damage at a building following a rocket attack on the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (Ukrainian Police Department Press Service via AP)

Putin also is justifying his country's invasion as necessary to stop the mistreatment of millions of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and to eliminate neo-Nazi groups that his government says have grown in power since the U.S.-backed “Maidan Revolution” in 2013-2014 that led to the overthrow of a democratically elected pro-Russian president who sparked widespread anger by scrapping a deal to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union. 

After the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian regions of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas declared themselves independent, sparking an armed conflict that has left more than 14,000 people dead and up to 2 million out of their homes. 

Following Yanukovych's removal from office, Ukraine signed the EU deal and has sought to speed up its entry into the NATO alliance, further angering the Kremlin. 

At a news conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov laid the blame for the war at the feet of the United States, Germany and France for not pushing Kyiv to carry out a ceasefire deal signed in 2015 to resolve the conflict over the Donbas, the so-called Minsk Agreements.   

“No one even moved a finger,” he said, as translated by RT, the Russian news outlet. “We tried to ask our Western counterparts, but that was just crying out in the middle of the desert unfortunately, no one heeded us.”   

“I cannot believe that Western politicians and diplomats consistently, categorically, refuted any attempts to make Kyiv to implement the Minsk Agreements,” he said. “They thought that it would go on forever, we would just stand idly by watching how Russians are oppressed, how the Russian language is banned.”    

He accused the Maidan Revolution of allowing “Russophobia neo-Nazism” to become “a foundation of the Ukrainian regime and it has brought the country to this deep tragedy.”  

ADVERTISEMENT

Experts are divided over how influential neo-Nazi groups and politicians are in Kyiv, but there is little doubt that they played a dangerous role in the Maidan Revolution. Likewise, Russian ultranationalist groups and the Russian state have been heavily involved in fomenting the conflict in the Donbas.   

Neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, though, have been linked to the most bloody events in the Maidan uprising – the mass shooting of protesters in Maidan Square and a massacre of 46 anti-Maidan protesters killed in Odessa on May 2, 2014, when the Trade Unions House was set on fire. Ukraine has been criticized for not doing thorough investigations and prosecutions of those massacres and there have been calls for the country to set up a truth and reconciliation process to heal the wounds.          

Since the 2014 Maidan uprising, Kyiv has taken harsh measures against the Donbas rebels and the annexed Crimea, including an economic blockade, cutting off water supplies to Crimea, imposing Russian language bans, outlawing the Communist Party and targeting the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine.   

The regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have also come under artillery shelling and sniper attacks from regular Ukrainian forces and volunteer militia groups with neo-Nazi affiliations.   

A Ukrainian soldier inspects fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Zamirovsky)

During World War II, Ukrainian nationalists seeking to create an independent country collaborated with Nazi Germany and fought communist Russia. The unhealed scars felt by Ukraine’s two sides – Europhiles and Russophiles – are emerging with deadly force in this war.   

Lavrov accused the West and its media outlets of ignoring the war in the Donbas and the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.  

“No one is going to occupy Ukraine,” Lavrov said. “We are interested in seeing the Ukrainian people independent, we want them to have the government that would represent all the people in all their versatility. We don't want to have a situation where it is run from abroad, externally, and this control wants to encourage neo-Nazis and genocide of Russians and they want to use Ukraine as a tool of containing Russia.” 

Though ethnic Russians have suffered from anti-Russian policies, experts deny that Ukraine’s actions amount to genocide.  

“Putin claims of genocide in Ukraine in Donbas to justify Russian invasion are false,” said Ivan Katchanovski, an expert on Ukraine and its conflict at the University of Ottawa, in a Twitter comment. “My studies found that there is no such genocide.”  

He said the false claims are “aimed at giving legitimacy to Russian invasion, which is illegal under international law, by using humanitarian intervention [as a] casus belli that was used by NATO under false pretexts during Kosovo and Libya wars.”   

Western politicians and diplomats largely dismiss Russia’s accusations of genocide and other complaints as pure hyperbole and a pretext for Russia to invade and take over a country that is moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence and seeking to develop its democracy.   

Putin, an authoritarian leader who has turned Russia into an undemocratic police state where the political opposition is violently suppressed, is now viewed by many as a ruler obsessed with reconstituting the old Russian empire and keeping in place other autocratic leaders in charge in the former Soviet republics, most significantly the brutal strongman in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.     

International condemnation of Russia's invasion grew on Friday and saw Western allies impose more sanctions, including a decision by the EU to freeze the personal assets of Putin and Lavrov. It is very rare for the head of a state to be sanctioned and Putin joins Lukashenko and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as national leaders shunned by the EU.    

In recent days, Russian banks, companies and top officials have been punished with other sanctions and the country is being cut off from critical technology. Germany took the major step of shutting down a controversial natural gas pipeline, the Nord Stream 2, that was supposed to double the amount of gas crossing into Germany from Russia across the Baltic Sea.   

But on Friday the West appeared divided and unable to impose what many see as a “nuclear option,” namely kicking Russian banks and financial institutions out of SWIFT, the acronym for the international system banks use to message each other and make transactions.   

“As for the SWIFT agreement ... disconnection from this system will mean that people in Russia, if, for example, a grandmother has a granddaughter in Europe and wants to transfer money, even if it doesn't seem very important, she won't be able to make the transfer,” said Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, in explaining her country’s hesitation to kick Russia out of the international banking system.  

Many nations in Europe, in particular Germany, Italy and Hungary, do a lot of trade with Russia and would be hurt economically by such a move.   

Additionally, Europe's soccer federation moved the continent's most important tournament, the Champions League championship, away from St. Petersburg to Paris and the Formula One car racing organization canceled a race scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia. The International Chess Federation also moved its World Chess Olympics tournament out of Russia. Protests against the war broke out in European cities and in Moscow, though protesters there were arrested. 

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

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...