Ukraine’s president vows to stay put as Russian invaders approach
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed on Friday to stay in Kyiv as his troops battled Russian invaders who are advancing toward the capital in the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two.
Russia launched its invasion by land, air and sea on Thursday following a declaration of war by President Vladimir Putin. An estimated 100,000 people fled as explosions and gunfire rocked major cities. Dozens have been reported killed.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to capture Kyiv and topple the government. Russia on Thursday seized the Chernobyl former nuclear power plant north of Kyiv, along the shortest route to the capital from Belarus, where Moscow has staged troops.
“(The) enemy has marked me down as the number one target,” Zelenskiy warned in a video message. “My family is the number two target. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”
“I will stay in the capital. My family is also in Ukraine.”
Putin says Russia is carrying out “a special military operation” to protect people, including Russian citizens, subjected to “genocide” in Ukraine – an accusation the West calls baseless propaganda.
Asked if he was worried about Zelenskiy’s safety, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS: “To the best of my knowledge, President Zelenskiy remains in Ukraine at his post, and of course we’re concerned for the safety of all of our friends in Ukraine – government officials and others.”
A democratic nation of 44 million people, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country by area after Russia itself. It voted for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and has recently stepped up efforts to join the NATO military alliance and the European Union, aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Putin denied for months that he was planning an invasion, even as the United States warned an attack was looming and shared satellite images of Russian forces massing on Ukraine’s borders.
The United States, Britain, Japan, Canada, Australia and the European Union unveiled more sanctions on Moscow on top of penalties earlier this week, including a move by Germany to halt an $11 billion gas pipeline from Russia.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Fox News that “to succeed, again, we need sanctions, (the) toughest sanctions possible.”
China, which had been expected to back Russia diplomatically over Ukraine, has declined to call Moscow’s assault an invasion and instead urged all sides to exercise restraint.
Australia criticised Beijing’s position on Friday, while Taiwan, a democratic island claimed by China that has faced increased Chinese military pressure over the last two years, announced it would put sanctions on Russia.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest energy producers, and both it and Ukraine are among the top exporters of grain. War and sanctions will disrupt economies around the world already facing a crisis as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
Zelenskiy said on Friday that 137 military personnel and civilians had been killed in the fighting so far, with hundreds of others injured. Ukrainian officials had earlier reported at least 70 people killed.
Washington and other NATO members have sent military aid to Ukraine but there is no move to send troops to fight alongside Ukrainian forces for fear of sparking a wider European conflict.
Kuleba said that Ukraine needs “more weapons to continue fighting … the amount of tanks, armoured vehicles, airplanes, helicopters that Russia threw on Ukraine is unimaginable.”
Some 90 km (60 miles) north of Kyiv, Chernobyl has been taken over by armed forces without identifying marks who disarmed a Ukrainian military unit guarding the station, Ukraine’s state nuclear regulator said.
The regulator said there had been no casualties, that nothing had been destroyed and that radiation levels were unchanged. It informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had lost control of the plant, it added.
With heavy fighting being reported on multiple fronts, the United Nations Security Council will vote on Friday on a draft resolution that would condemn Russia’s invasion and require Moscow’s immediate withdrawal.
However, Moscow can veto the measure, and it was unclear how China would vote.
The invasion has drawn protests in the United States, Europe and within Ukraine, and even Russia itself, where authorities detained hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets on Thursday.
Dmitry Muratov, a Russian newspaper editor who won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, told the BBC in an interview that Feb. 24, the day of the invasion, would go down as the day “Russia’s future was taken away from it”.
“Our peace-loving Russian people will now feel the hatred of the world because we are starting a third world war in the centre of Europe.”