KYIV, Ukraine — Street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city and Russian troops squeezed strategic ports in the country’s south Sunday, advances that appeared to mark a new phase of Russia’s invasion following a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere in the country.
Following its gains on the ground, Russia sent a delegation to Belarus for peace talks with Ukraine, according to the Kremlin. Ukraine’s president suggested other locations, saying his country was unwilling to meet in Belarus because it served as a staging ground for the invasion.
Until Sunday, Russia’s troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, while other forces rolled past to press the offensive deeper into Ukraine and Ukrainian fighters put up determined resistance.
Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. One video showed Ukrainian soldiers inspecting Russian light utility vehicles damaged by shelling and abandoned by Russian troops on a street.
“We are fighting, fighting for our country, fighting for our freedom because we have the right to do that,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. “The past night was tough — more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure. There is not a single facility in the country that the occupiers wouldn’t consider as admissible targets.”
Huge explosions lit up the sky early Sunday near the capital, Kyiv, where terrified residents hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.
But Ukrainians also volunteered en masse to help defend Kyiv and other cities, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.
Zelenskyy denounced Russia’s offensive as “state terrorism.” He said the attacks on Ukrainian cities should be investigated by an international war crimes tribunal and cost Russia its place as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
“Russia has taken the path of evil, and the world should come to depriving it of its U.N. Security Council seat,” he said.
Officials maintained a 39-hour curfew to keep people off the capital’s streets until Monday morning, complicating the task of assessing the intensity of the fighting. Zelenskyy’s office said explosions were reported at Kyiv International Airport.
Flames billowed from an oil depot near an airbase in Vasylkiv, a city 37 kilometers (23 miles) south of Kyiv where there has been intense fighting, according to the mayor. Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline to the east in Kharkiv, prompting the government to warn people to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze as protection from smoke, the president’s office said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
The pressure on strategic ports in the south of Ukraine appeared aimed at seizing control of Ukraine’s coastline stretching from the border with Romania in the west to the border with Russia in the east. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea,
Cutting Ukraine’s access to its sea ports that would deal a major blow to the country’s economy. It also could allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and until now was connected to Russia by a 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge, the longest bridge in Europe which opened in 2018.
Russia’s military also put increasing pressure on strategic ports in the south of Ukraine, blocking the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea
He said the Russian forces also took control of an airbase near Kherson and the Azov Sea city of Henichesk Ukrainian authorities also have reported fighting near Odesa, Mykolaiv and other areas.
Ukraine’s health minister reported Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded during Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties.
The United Nations’ refugee agency said late Saturday more than 200,000 Ukrainians have arrived in neighboring countries since the invasion started Thursday. The U.N. has estimated the conflict could produce as many as 4 million refugees, depending how long it continues.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a Russian delegation of military officials and diplomats had arrived Sunday in the Belarusian city of Gomel for talks with Ukraine. Zelenskyy on Friday offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: abandoning ambitions of joining NATO.
“The Russian delegation is ready for talks and we are now waiting for the Ukrainians,” Peskov said.
Ukraine’s president said his country was ready for peace talks but not in Belarus given the Russian ally’s role in the invasion.
“Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul, Baku, we offered all of them to the Russian side and we will accept any other city in a country that hasn’t been used for launching missiles,” Zelenskyy said. “Only then the talks could be honest and put an end to the war.”
Peskov claimed Ukraine had proposed holding talks in Gomel. He added that the Russian military action was going forward pending the talks start.
Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak dismissed Moscow’s offer as “manipulation,” adding that “Russia keeps lying” and emphasizing that Ukraine hadn’t agreed to talks in the Belarusian city.
As Russia pushes ahead with its offensive, the West is working to equip the outnumbered Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition while punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.
The U.S. pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. Germany said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the besieged country and that it would close its airspace to Russian planes.
The U.S., European Union and United Kingdom agreed to block “selected” Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion. They also agreed to impose ”restrictive measures” on Russia’s central bank.
Responding to a request from Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, tech billionaire Elon Musk said on Twitter that his satellite-based internet system Starlink was now active in Ukraine and that there were “more terminals en route.”
Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, all the while building up a force of almost 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders. He claims the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.
A senior U.S. defense official said Saturday that more than half of the Russian combat power amassed along Ukraine’s borders had entered the country and Moscow has had to commit more fuel supply and other support units inside Ukraine than originally anticipated. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. assessments.
Russia claims its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighborhoods have been hit.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, said troops in Kyiv were fighting Russian “sabotage groups.” Ukraine says some 200 Russian soldiers have been captured and thousands killed. Moscow has not provided casualty figures.
Markarova said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to an international war crimes court in The Hague as possible crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has said he is monitoring the conflict closely.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow, and Miller from Washington. Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; Mstyslav Chernov and Nic Dumitrache in Mariupol, Ukraine; and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine