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War turns bloodier, Russia more isolated, as Ukrainians fight back

Russian President Vladimir Putin's hopes for a quick takeover and speedy regime change in Ukraine appear to be failing as Ukrainians put up a tough fight against the Russian invasion.

(CN) --- The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine was spiraling into a bloodbath on Saturday as Russian troops met with an increasingly more organized and determined resistance from Ukrainian soldiers, volunteer militias and civilians, opening the possibility of a devastating defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia was attacking from the Black Sea, fighting to seize the capital Kyiv, seizing towns and cities in eastern Ukraine and making gains across the country but there is mounting evidence Russian forces are suffering mass casualties and the loss of scores of tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft.

So far, the Russian military has not provided information about its losses, but based on Western intelligence reports and videos from Ukrainian officials, social media and news outlets it is clear that Putin's decision to invade is becoming a ghastly, horrific and costly war for his military.

The Ukraine Ministry of Defense claimed on Saturday that more than 3,000 Russian troops had been killed and more than 200 captured. Ukraine said its forces had destroyed more than 100 tanks and struck more than 20 airplanes. Ukraine says about 200 of its fighters have been killed, but the number of deaths is likely higher.

At the same time, Russia was coming under fierce attack from Western powers, which have now placed personal sanctions on Putin, top officials and members of its parliament and imposed huge penalties on Russian banks and companies.

With the invasion turning into Europe's most sickening spasm of violence since the Balkans Wars, the West is being propelled to go much further to stop Putin by kicking Russia out of the dollar-based international banking transaction system, known as SWIFT.

On Saturday, Germany, Italy and Hungary, three European Union nations that were hesitant about such a move, reportedly had agreed to go along with the plan, which is being pushed by the United States.

Such a move — known as a kind of “nuclear option” — could have far-reaching consequences as it would leave the Russian population financially marooned and it would likely cause major disruptions in world trade. In response, Russia and China might take steps to develop alternative banking systems, opening a new front in what experts say is a new Cold War.

In Kyiv, meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared on Saturday that Russia was being defeated.

“We are successfully holding back the enemy's attacks,” Zelenskyy said in a speech to rally his people.

He pleaded for more international help, something that Ukraine is getting ever more of. On Saturday, Germany said it would lift a ban on weapons exports to Ukraine, a major shift in policy for Europe's most powerful nation and one that will anger Russia, a former foe turned friend since the end of World War II.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile announced $350 million in military aid for Ukraine. The U.S. has provided more than $5 billion in aid since the 2014 “Maidan Revolution,” a U.S.-backed uprising that led to the overthrow of a democratically elected, but corrupt, pro-Russian Ukrainian president. Many experts describe the events as a coup d'etat.

The 2014 uprising triggered the events that led to this war because after an anti-Russian government was installed in Kyiv Putin ordered his troops to seize Crimea, a peninsula in Ukraine where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based, and then he supported an armed rebellion by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.

The inability to end the war there and Ukraine's pursuit of NATO membership set the stage for Putin's wild decision to invade Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday.

Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians to keep up the fight and he called on the EU to immediately allow his nation into the bloc.

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“Everyone should help us stop this occupation,” the president said, his voice hoarse, deep and determined, as he called on Ukrainians and foreigners to join the fight.

“If you can destroy the occupiers, please do it; everyone who can come back to Ukraine, please come back to defend Ukraine and after that we will have a lot of work to do to rebuild our Ukraine … Every friend of Ukraine who wants to join Ukraine in defending the country, please come over, we will give you weapons.”

In Kyiv, some 25,000 automatic weapons have been handed out to the general population and across Ukraine people were heeding calls to make Molotov cocktails to throw at Russian troops and tanks. In the southeastern city of Dnipro, Sky News showed scores of mostly young people making Molotov cocktails in a square where lines of people were signing up for conscription. Zelenskyy called for a general military mobilization of the population and forbid any male between the age of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.

“Everyone who is defending Ukraine is a hero,” Zelenskyy said.

He made a plea for Russians in Russia to stand up to Putin and stop the war. Anti-war protests have broken out across Russia and the rest of Europe, where national monuments have been bathed in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue.

“Now, I want everyone in Russia to hear me, everybody,” he said. “Hundreds of captured soldiers who are here in Ukraine don't know why they were sent here to kill people or to be killed. The sooner you tell your government that the war has to be stopped, more people from your country will stay alive.”

The invasion of Ukraine is turning into a horrific bloodbath with street fighting, blown up residential buildings, dead civilians, including children, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the country. The European Union is preparing for as many as 4 million Ukrainian refugees.

In the West, hope is growing that Putin may have made a catastrophic miscalculation by thinking he could send his army into Ukraine and install a new pro-Kremlin regime.

“Putin's war of choice has required that we follow through on imposing the massive consequences and severe costs and that we ensure his flagrant violation of international law will be a strategic failure,” said Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman, on Friday.

“The people of Russia, as we have said time and again, are not our enemy,” Price said. “We hold President Putin and his cronies responsible for this war.”

Analysts are beginning to see the resistance by Ukrainians as a potential turning point in the conflict.

“I think what we're seeing is an incredibly strong and brave defense of Ukraine by the Ukrainian people, it's very much a David and Goliath struggle,” said Donnacha O Beachain, a politics professor at Dublin City University who specializes in post-Soviet politics, speaking on TRT World, a Turkish news broadcaster.

“Putin has made a direct request to the Ukrainian people to not fight, to give up. They haven't done that, they haven't surrendered,” he said. “The people on the streets have been quite clear that they were born in an independent Ukraine — 30 years ago now it's been established — and they would prefer to die in an independent Ukraine.”

One example of this is Sviatoslav Yurash, a 26-year-old who is the youngest member of Ukraine's parliament and who took up arms, as reported by Sky News.

“Everything is at stake here, I'm no soldier, I don't have that much experience with the gun, but again when you are fighting for your life, you learn pretty quick,” he said in a social media post. “The reality is that Ukraine doesn't have a choice if it wants to survive as a state. Russia wants to destroy us and we Ukrainians are not going to let that happen. I was born in an independent Ukraine and I shall die in an independent Ukraine.”

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O Beachain said Putin likely did not expect this level of patriotism by Ukrainians willing to defend their country with their own lives.

“It was unexpected and they're left with a choice: How much of Ukraine are they willing to destroy in order to control it, how many poeple are they willing to kill,” O Beachain said. “Ukrainians on their part are left with the decision or the choice of whether to have set-piece battles to defend Kyiv or to draw the Russians into Kyiv for guerilla warfare … It would be very difficult for the Russian army to occupy street by street a hostile city, which they won't be familiar with, with heavily armed people.”

Andrij Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, told Sky News that Putin “underestimated the strength of our army but he also underestimated the will of the Ukrainian people to defend their country and not to give up.”

Melnyk said Putin's invasion must be seen by the West as proof that the Russian president is a threat to all of Europe and that defeating him in Ukraine is a must.

“Mr. Putin has declared a war of extinction, of annihilation, not just for the Ukrainian people but also for the whole of Europe, there is no way to stay neutral in this situation,” he said.

Putin has said his aim is to remove the Kyiv government, which he accuses of implementing “genocidal” policies against ethnic Russians in Ukraine and fomenting an anti-Russian neo-Nazi nationalism in the country. Ukraine has been shelling the rebel held areas of Donbas for the past eight years, but experts say Ukraine's actions cannot be classified as genocide.

Since the Maidan Revolution and Russia's annexation of Crimea, Kyiv has taken strong anti-Russian positions that have included restricting the Russian language, targeting the Russian Orthodox Church, honoring World War II figures aligned with the Nazis and of course not withdrawing from the self-declared independent pro-Russian separatist region of the Donbas.

Ukraine is a multiethnic country that is divided between a majority Ukrainian population and a minority Russian one and animosities between the two communities exploded during the Maidan Revolution.

This war may fuel those animosities as politicians in Moscow and Kyiv issue hate-filled rhetoric.

On RT, a Russian state news channel, Natalya Narochnitskaya, the vice chair of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, Russia's parliament, accused people in Western Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment is strongest, of feeling racially superior.

“It hates Russians, goddamn Muscovites,” she said about people from that area, known as Galicia. “For them … I'm a mixture of barbarian, Mongols, with some Finn, while the Ukrainians, they are Aryans; and we have stolen the Kyiv history and Byzantine heritage and we are so huge and we have multiplied and reached three oceans and they, these people from Galicia, could have become what now Russia is.”

In brief comments on Saturday, Putin accused the Ukrainian army of using people as human shields.

“Ukrainian radical nationalists are deploying heavy weapons including multiple launch rocket systems, right in the central areas of large cities,” Putin said. “They plan to provoke a response from Russian strike systems on residential areas.”

He accused Ukraine's military of acting “in the same way as terrorists do.”

“It is reliably known this is happening under the direction of foreign consultants, primarily Americans,” Putin accused.

In Kyiv, Petro Poroshenko, a former Ukrainian president and right-wing nationalist who escalated the war in the Donbas and pushed for anti-Russian legislation, reflected the mood in Ukraine as he spoke to Sky News on a street where he was armed, surrounded by an entourage of armed men in camouflage and waiting for the Russians. He has ambitions to return to power, though he faces charges of state treason.

“Putin hates Ukraine and he hates Ukrainians,” Poroshenko said. “Putin said that in Ukraine the people will meet Russian soldiers with flowers; and preparing the Molotov cocktail, this is the flowers for Putin. And definitely this is our soil, this is our country, this is our people and Putin has nothing to do here. Get out from Ukraine, Mr. Putin.”

O Beachain said this war is likely to get much more difficult.

“Putin has launched this open-ended conflict, it's very unlike his previous wars in places like Chechnya and Georgia, there's no exit strategy,” he said.

“But I think what he'll find is that despite his appetite to control Ukraine, the digestion is going to be something very, very different,” he said. “It's one thing to conquer a country, it's another thing to control the people who live there... I think he may live to regret that this happened, this may be Putin's last war, perhaps.”

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

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