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The battle for Kyiv intensifies as Russian forces advance on city outskirts

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no mood to stop his invasion of Ukraine, French officials say after he spoke with European leaders by telephone. The Russian attack on Kyiv is getting more fierce.

(CN) — Russian forces tried to force their way into the capital of Kyiv on Saturday, but their advance was held back by stiff resistance from Ukrainian soldiers.  

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is becoming ever more brutal as its army gets bogged down in fighting with Ukrainian forces and the devastation from artillery shelling, bombs and fighting is spreading across the country. The humanitarian disaster is growing too, especially in cities under siege from Russian attacks.  

The situation in the southern port city of Mariupol is especially dire with hundreds of thousands of people without enough electricity, heat, water, medical supplies and food. The city has opened mass graves to bury the dead. Ukraine says more than 1,580 people have died there.   

“The situation in Mariupol is terrible,” said Liudmyla Denisova, the commissioner for human rights at the Ukrainian Parliament, according to Ukrimform, a Ukrainian news agency. “These bombings, which take place almost every hour, simply kill and wipe this place off the map of Ukraine.”   

A defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday said Russian President Vladimir Putin will only be able to seize Kyiv by razing the ancient city to the ground. Kyiv has deep cultural and spiritual meaning for Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians because they trace their roots to a powerful kingdom founded in the ninth century by Vikings known as Kyivan Rus'.  

Speaking with foreign reporters, Zelenskyy said Russia will be able to take the city only by “carpet bombing” and killing Ukrainians in the city en masse.  

“If there are hundreds, thousands of people and thousands of soldiers, who are now being mobilized by Russia, and if hundreds or thousands of tanks come, they may come to Kyiv,” he said. “We understand that. If they use ‘carpet bombing’ and just decide to erase historical memory of this entire region, the history of Kyivan Rus', the history of Europe ... Only by defeating us, can they enter Kyiv. Therefore, if that’s the goal, let them come.”  

With so much at stake and already lost with his wild invasion, Putin is not backing down though. By invading Ukraine, Putin has turned Russia into the West's No. 1 enemy and thrust his country on a path that will leave it economically, culturally and technologically shut off from the West.  

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with Putin by telephone and urged him to call a ceasefire and open humanitarian corridors to allow suffering civilians leave devastated cities.  

But Putin showed no willingness to end the war, according to an official with French presidency, media reported. Putin also reportedly blamed Ukraine for war crimes, an allegation the Elysee Palace called “lies,” according to Le Monde, the French newspaper.  

Russia was blasted for new brutalities against civilians on Saturday.   

Late Saturday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense accused Russian troops of firing upon a column of women and children fleeing a village near Kyiv, killing seven people, including a child. The ministry said there were wounded people too.   

In Mariupol, Ukraine said Russia bombed a mosque where more than 80 people, including children, were sheltering. There were no immediate reports of injuries.   

In Kharkiv, the second-largest Ukrainian city in the northeast along Russia’s border, four more civilians were reported to have been killed Saturday, bringing the total number of civilians deaths there to 205, according to Ukrainian officials.   

On Friday, the United Nations human rights office said it had confirmed 579 civilian deaths, including 42 children, since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, 17 days ago. The agency said the number of killed is likely much higher because it’s not been able to corroborate civilian deaths in areas where the fighting is most intense.   

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The number of soldiers killed remains unclear, but there have been heavy losses on both sides. Russia is expected to prevail simply due to the size of its army, but there are signs Russia may not achieve a clear victory and even if it does there is a good chance Moscow or any government it may install in Kyiv would face a prolonged insurgency.   

On Saturday, Zelenskyy said about 1,300 Ukrainian troops have been killed so far. More than a week ago, Russia acknowledged about 500 of its troops had been killed, but since then it has not provided figures on how many fighters it has lost. Ukraine claims it has killed more than 12,000 Russians and destroyed hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and many helicopters and airplanes.   

While Ukraine’s claims may be exaggerated, Russia is certainly struggling in its war against its southwestern neighbor, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.   

In recent years, Ukraine’s military has been beefed up to become Europe’s second-largest force after Russia’s and it has been modernized with new weapons and better training with billions of dollars from the United States and NATO.    

In its latest assessment on Friday, the Study of War institute said Russian attacks on Kyiv had failed, its forces were “largely stalemated” around Kharkiv and its advances in the south and east had “made no progress in the last 24 hours.” The think tank also noted that Russian troops in the south likely were facing morale and supply problems.   

With heavy troop losses and even the reported deaths of at least two Russian generals, Putin has begun to call up poorly-trained conscripts and trying to beef up his attack with thousands of Syrian fighters.      

“Uncoordinated and sporadic Russian offensive operations against major Ukrainian cities support the Ukrainian General Staff’s assessment that Russian forces face growing morale and supply issues and have lost the initiative,” the institute said.   

The institute’s experts said Putin is reportedly conducting an “internal purge” of officers and intelligence personnel in order to recalibrate “Russia’s war effort to sustain combat operations far longer than the Kremlin initially planned.”   

Still, the experts said the Kremlin “is highly unlikely to abandon its continuing main effort to encircle and capture Kyiv and will continue to feed replacements and reinforcements into this operation.”   

Zelenskyy called on Putin to hold peace talks that he said could be mediated by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who visited the Kremlin last weekend. Zelenskyy and Bennett are both Jewish, the only two Jewish heads of state in the world.  

RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, reported that Putin in his talks with Macron and Scholz accused Ukraine’s armed forces and secret services of “extrajudicial reprisals against dissenters, taking hostages and using civilians as human shields, placing heavy weapons in residential areas, near hospitals, schools, kindergartens.”   

Russian sources have shown evidence of Ukrainian forces taking up positions in urban settings where people live.   

Putin also accused Ukraine of “systematically” disrupting humanitarian efforts.   

On Saturday, the White House said it was setting aside $300 million more for Ukraine’s defense, a sum that adds to more than $5 billion already spent in the past eight years on Ukraine by the U.S.  

Russia warned on Saturday that it will now view arms shipments into Ukraine as “legitimate” military targets. NATO has refused Ukraine’s pleas to enter the war on its behalf, for instance by attacking Russian warplanes, but the military pact is funneling ammunition, drones, intelligence, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, military equipment and much else into Ukraine to support its defenses.  

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At its root, the war in Ukraine can be traced back to a decision by the U.S. and its NATO allies to try to make Ukraine a member of the alliance. In 2008 at a Bucharest summit, then-President George W. Bush said Ukraine and Georgia would be put on the path toward NATO membership.  

A year before that announcement, Putin made a speech at the Munich Security Conference, an annual event where European leaders discuss geopolitics, where he warned against NATO expansion onto Russia’s borders. Putin made his speech in the wake of the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and military personnel and plunged the Middle East into further chaos. 

Putin’s speech was foreboding and polemical because he said a global order where only America's rules, laws and interests counted was “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflict,” destroying the international system of laws and interests and leaving humanity unable to resolve complex problems. 

“I want to emphasize this: No one feels safe because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them for such a policy stimulates an arms race,” he said, as translated in a video by RT, a Russian state news outlet. 

Putin accused the U.S., European leaders and NATO of expanding toward Russia despite promises to the contrary made to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He blasted the West for installing anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe in contradiction to previous agreements and building up military forces ever closer to Russia. He accused the West of selfishly reaping the economic benefits of a world order it dominated. 

“We should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible thanks to a historic change, one that was also made by our people, the people of Russia, a choice in favor of democracy, freedom, openness and a sincere cooperation with all the members of big European family; and now they are trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us,” Putin said. 

In April 2008, though, Bush declared that the NATO alliance would expand the “circle of freedom” and put Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics with deep historical importance to Russia, on the path to NATO membership. 

The Kremlin was furious and felt betrayed. Only four months after the Bucharest NATO summit, Russia invaded Georgia in a war between Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the central government in Tbilisi. 

Tensions also grew in the breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova known as Transnistria where Russian troops were stationed and the political landscape in Ukraine became more acrid. 

The complete rupture between Russia and the West occurred with the Maidan Revolution over the winter of 2013-2014 and the overthrow of the democratically-elected pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.  

After that, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in Ukraine where its Black Sea Fleet was stationed. Following the annexation, Russia was kicked out of the Group of Eight, heavily sanctioned and demonized by the West.  

Russia then supported an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, where an ethnic Russian population was upset with the pro-Western and anti-Russian policies being pushed by the post-Maidan governments in Kyiv, which had the backing of the U.S.  

The uprising in eastern Ukraine turned into a war that claimed the lives of about 14,000 people and forced up to 2 million people to become war refugees.  

The conflict in Donbas – the name given to eastern Ukraine –was supposed to be resolved by two peace agreements signed by Ukraine and Russia in 2014 and 2015 and approved by the U.N. Security Council, the so-called Minsk Accords. But an ultranationalist government in Kyiv led by former President Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire oligarch, refused to abide by the deals because they likely would have led Ukraine into becoming a federal state where ethnic Russian areas of eastern Ukraine would have become autonomous.   

In 2019, Zelenskyy, a comedian-turned-politician, beat Poroshenko and was elected with broad support across Ukraine by pledging that he would bring an end to the war in Donbas and heal differences between the majority Ukrainian population and the minority of ethnic Russians. During the campaign, he also voiced the idea that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.”  

Zelenskyy came into politics with a new political party – Servant of the People – that was named after a television show in which he starred as a high-school teacher who unexpectedly gets elected president of Ukraine after a rant he makes against corruption goes viral.  

Once in office, though, Zelenskyy failed to live up to his campaign promises of wanting to bring the war in Donbas to an end. Instead, Zelenskyy morphed into a wartime president and made frequent visits to the frontline in Donbas and vowed to take back all of the territory lost to Russia.   

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

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