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Ukrainians resist Russian onslaught as tanks and planes dig deeper toward Kyiv

Scores of civilians were displaced from their homes in Kyiv on Feb. 25 after an unidentified projectile struck just outside their apartment block before dawn. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces desperately fought back against a Russian military onslaught Friday, firing U.S.-made missiles at aircraft and tanks as the Kremlin’s rockets, artillery and missiles rained down on population centers from Kharkiv to Mariupol to the capital of Kyiv.

As Moscow’s vastly superior air, naval and ground forces dug deeper into the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared bent on regime change, calling on Ukraine’s armed forces to “take power” from Ukraine’s democratically elected leaders, whom he called “drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to defend the capital alongside his country’s soldiers and citizens, who have armed themselves with pistols, rifles and homemade molotov cocktails. “This was a hard, but brave day,” Zelensky said in a video address late Friday. “This night they will begin to storm. … We have to withstand. The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now.”

More than four dozen explosions thundered in Kyiv before dawn Saturday. Continuous shelling could be heard for about 30 minutes, around the same time the Ukrainian military repelled Russian attacks near a thermal plant in northern Kyiv, the Kyiv Independent reported.

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Even with stiffer resistance by Ukrainian troops than Western and U.S. officials anticipated, few doubted that Russia’s much larger and more capable conventional forces would prevail. “They’re likely to defeat Ukrainian regular military forces and secure their objectives in the coming days or weeks,” said a senior Western intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

Still, as Ukrainians took shelter in subway stations amid blaring air raid sirens, the United States cheered on Ukraine’s forces, seeking to dispel what it called Russian disinformation about mass surrenders.

“Putin didn’t account for everything — and he didn’t account for the bravery and resolve of the people of Ukraine,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “We have seen Ukrainian soldiers demonstrate incredible bravery in the first day of self-defense, shooting down Russian aircraft, firing on tanks and holding positions while under violent assault.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video Feb. 25 in which the leader said he was among those continuing to defend Kyiv. (Video: The Washington Post)

Russia faced a fresh round of economic punishment from Western nations, along with global outrage from leaders in politics, culture, sports and entertainment. The United States joined the European Union in imposing sanctions on Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a coordinated effort that included travel bans and asset freezes.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the deployment of thousands of troops from France, Germany and the United States to Eastern Europe to bolster the military alliance’s eastern flank. A growing list of nations announced they would close their respective airspace to Russian airlines. The countries — which include Poland, Czech Republic and Bulgaria — were all behind the Iron Curtain and have since become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which had also been Ukraine’s goal.

At a heated session of the U.N. Security Council in New York, a diverse array of countries supported a resolution denouncing Russia’s assault — a move Russia was nevertheless able to veto under its authority as a permanent member of the council. Eleven countries voted in favor of the resolution. Only Russia voted against it. Three nations abstained: China, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Speaking after the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield described Russia as reckless and irresponsible. “Russia, you can veto this resolution, but you cannot veto our voices,” she said. “You cannot veto the Ukrainian people, and you will not veto accountability.”

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Back in Ukraine, the humanitarian toll of the war was quickly becoming apparent.

More than 50,000 Ukrainians fled the country in the first 48 hours after the attacks started, according to Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency. More than 100,000 people had been displaced inside Ukraine, he said, many of them fleeing artillery and missile strikes.

The fighting threatens to destabilize Europe and give rise to the continent’s largest refugee crisis since the Syrian civil war.

Of the 50,000 people who left the country, about 30,000 crossed to Poland and approximately 20,000 to Moldova, Boian said. Smaller numbers crossed to other countries in the region.

“There are no winners in war, but countless lives will be torn apart,” said Filippo Grandi, the agency’s High Commissioner.

Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed Friday that “no strikes are being made on civilian infrastructure” — a claim Ukrainian officials strenuously denied.

Total numbers of civilian casualties in Ukraine remain unclear, with no comprehensive figures released by Ukraine’s government. Early Friday, Zelensky, said at least 137 people — civilians and military personnel — had been killed in the Russian attacks. Western intelligence officials said they believed the death toll was likely much higher and would certainly grow in the coming days.

“The enemy wants to bring the capital to its knees and destroy us,” he said. “Everyone who can defend the city must join and help our soldiers.”

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Putin, in a video statement Friday, said the Zelensky government had “occupied Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.” But even as he waged war against it, his spokesperson said Russia was ready to send a delegation to Minsk, in Belarus, for talks with Ukraine. He made clear, however, that should those talks happen, nothing less than full capitulation by Kyiv would suffice.

The possibility of such negotiations was discussed during a phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Ukrainian counterpart. The U.S. said later on Friday that the offer was not serious, however, and warning diplomacy could not be done “at the barrel of a gun.”

“We see these offers as tanks roll across the border,” Price said. “We want to make clear to President Putin that diplomacy by the barrel of a gun, coercive diplomacy is not something we will take part in, and not something that will bring an end to this conflict in a real, genuine and sustainable way.”

Russia’s offer to negotiate followed an unusual threat by Moscow to Finland and Sweden, with Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warning of “military and political consequence” should those countries attempt to join NATO.

“Finland and Sweden should not base their security on damaging the security of other countries and their accession to NATO can have detrimental consequences,” Zakharova said.

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Elsewhere on Friday, Russia faced a wide range of pushback. The Council of Europe, the continent’s main human rights watchdog, suspended Russia’s representation rights in the organization’s decision-making body and debate forum. The council was founded after World War II to uphold democracy in Europe and has 47 member nations.

Russia remains a member of the council and a party to its conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the council said in a statement. It said the suspension is temporary, “leaving channels of communication open.”

Russia was also banned from competing in the popular Eurovision Song Contest.

Fedor Smolov, a Russian national soccer team member, criticized the military incursion in a viral Instagram post that said “No to war!!!" alongside a broken-heart emoji and Ukrainian flag. Another critic of the war, Russian rapper Oxxxymiron, canceled upcoming shows in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Western nations pledged to beef up military and economic aid to Ukraine. The White House asked Congress to approve $6.4 billion in new emergency aid, hoping to boost humanitarian assistance and shore up other allies in the region against any further Russian aggression.

The first chunk of money, totaling about $2.9 billion, would allow the State Department and other agencies to provide security assistance to Ukraine as well as other states in the region, according to a Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions.

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Poland, meanwhile, delivered a package of ammunition to Ukraine, according to its defense minister. It was the first publicly acknowledged shipment of military aid to the country since the Russian invasion began.

Addressing his hawkish Security Council by video link on Friday, Putin claimed “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine had placed heavy weapons in residential neighborhoods in cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, saying they were using women, children, wives and elderly people “as human shields.”

He said Russia’s main fight was not against the regular Ukrainian army, but what he called neo-Nazi gangs. Putin also claimed without evidence that the United States was advising these forces to deploy heavy weapons in civilian areas.

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Ukraine estimated that its forces have destroyed more than 30 Russian tanks, up to 130 armored combat vehicles, seven airplanes and six helicopters, according to official reports.

Russian forces continued bombing cities in eastern Ukraine, including Kropyvnytskyi, and the southern city of Vilkovo, Ukrainian officials reported.

Roughly one-third of the Russian forces committed to the assault appeared to be in Ukraine as of midday Friday, which would amount to more than 50,000 troops, a senior U.S. defense official said.

The invasion continued with an amphibious landing of Russian naval forces west of the city of Mariupol and with Russia continuing to launch missiles into Ukraine. As of Friday morning in Washington, more than 200 missile strikes had occurred, the official said, up from 160 as of Thursday. Some of the missiles landed in residential areas.

Russian forces have blocked Kyiv’s access from the West with paratroopers and assault teams, according to a spokesman with Russia’s defense ministry.

Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Hudson and Nakashima reported from Washington. Tony Romm, Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe in Washington, and Robyn Dixon in Moscow, contributed to this report.

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