The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s second-largest city intensifies as talks fail to yield breakthrough

A destroyed armored vehicle sits in front of a school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28. Residents said the school caught fire amid shelling as Russia's attack on Ukraine's second-largest city intensified. (Vitaliy Gnidyi/Reuters)
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KHARKIV, Ukraine — Russian and Ukrainian delegations held five hours of inconclusive talks near the Belarus border Monday, as heavy Russian bombardment continued in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and Western countries tightened their financial stranglehold on the Russian banking system.

Amid what appeared to be sporadic missile strikes in Kyiv, satellite photographs showed a Russian column of troops and armored vehicles stretching for 17 miles and heading southeast, in the direction of the Ukrainian capital. The United Nations refugee agency said more than half a million Ukrainians, primarily women and children, had fled to neighboring countries seeking safety.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a video posted late Monday, called the shelling of Kharkiv a “war crime” and the “deliberate destruction of people” in areas where there are no military facilities. Calling for an international tribunal to judge Russia’s actions, he said, “No one in the world will forgive you for killing peaceful Ukrainian people.”

He said that the border talks had been “synchronized” with the “brutal” attack on Kharkiv. After the two sides departed, Kremlin aide Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the Russian delegation, said that they had found “certain points where we forecast common ground” and that they expected to meet again in the coming days after consulting with their respective presidents.

Russia continued its country-wide attack on Ukraine for a fifth day on Feb. 28, targeting the eastern city of Kharkiv. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

But any hopes of a breakthrough, slim before the talks, were not improved. Ukraine’s goal was an immediate cease-fire and Russian withdrawal. Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Ukraine accept the loss of the eastern Donbas region, which he recognized as two independent republics a week ago. Putin has also insisted that Ukraine end its quest to join NATO, remove all its weapons and recognize Crimea, annexed in 2014, as part of Russia.

Russian forces that on Sunday breached Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, had initially been repelled by the Ukrainian military. Renewed Russian bombardment Monday followed a period of calm in streets that were largely deserted as local residents took shelter.

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As the siege of Kharkiv continued, U.S. officials said intelligence reports showed that Belarus, whose President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Putin, is preparing to send its soldiers into Ukraine in support of the Russian invasion. The officials cited that support as a key factor behind a State Department decision Monday to suspend U.S. Embassy operations in Minsk, the Belarus capital.

“It’s very clear Minsk is now an extension of the Kremlin,” said one official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive security development.

The State Department also authorized the departure of non-emergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And it said it was beginning the process of expelling 12 intelligence operatives from the Russian mission in New York who it said “have abused their privileges of residency in the U.S. by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security.”

Officials said the expulsions were not directly related to events in Ukraine and had been in the works for several months, but they underscored the heightened U.S.-Russia tensions. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, called the expulsions a “hostile” act and a violation of Washington’s commitments as a host of the U.N. headquarters. He said Russia would respond.

In Washington, President Biden, asked by reporters Monday as he left a White House event whether Americans should be worried about the possibility of nuclear war, responded briskly, “No.” U.S. officials said there had been no change in the U.S. nuclear posture after a Kremlin announcement Sunday that Russian nuclear forces had been placed on alert. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that officials were “reviewing and analyzing” the situation but that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “is comfortable with the strategic deterrence posture of the United States.”

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The value of the ruble fell nearly 30 percent early Monday after several nations, including the United States, moved over the weekend to block the Kremlin’s access to its sizable foreign currency reserves in the West and cut off some Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system. Scattered antiwar protests continued in Russia, and lines formed at some banks and cash machines as Russians sought to withdraw their money.

In ways large and small, Western nations and their populations moved to express their displeasure with Russia and cut it off from the rest of the world. Historically neutral Switzerland said it would join European Union sanctions against Russia and froze the bank accounts of sanctioned Russians. Finland, also neutral, said it would send arms to Ukraine.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Ukraine is “one of us, and we want them in the European Union,” although she did not offer details on how or when the 27-member organization would take a step it has long resisted.

Ukraine was quick to take up the offer. Zelensky formally asked Monday to join via what he called a “special procedure” and said that “we are grateful to our partners for being with us. But our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on an equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure we earned it. I’m sure it’s possible.”

On Sunday, the E.U. said it would finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to Ukraine, the first time in its history that the economic organization has taken such actions, and would ban Russian aircraft from its members’ airspace.

In response, Russia’s aviation agency on Monday banned flights from dozens of countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a trip to Geneva — where the U.N. human rights agency agreed to take up the invasion of Ukraine later this week — although E.U. officials said diplomatic flights were exempted from the airspace ban.

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NATO member Turkey said it had warned countries not to send warships through the Turkish straits, a move that could limit the passage of Russian naval vessels through the narrow waterways that connect the Mediterranean and Black seas. The comments by Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, followed a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, as well as remarks by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey intended to use its authority over the straits to prevent the conflict in Ukraine from “escalating.”

A 1936 treaty, the Montreux Convention, gives Turkey the right to regulate passage of warships and other vessels through the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits. Turkey has walked a fine line between Russia and Ukraine during the conflict, mindful of its strategic relationships with both governments.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board recommended that all international sporting organizations exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus. FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, suspended Russia from competition, as did the European soccer association UEFA.

In an unusual action, the U.N. General Assembly convened Monday morning to debate a resolution condemning Russia’s actions and demanding it withdraw. Because the resolution is being debated in the General Assembly, rather than the Security Council, Russia will not be able to veto the measure, which is nonbinding. The debate is expected to continue for several days.

France said that Putin had agreed in a Monday telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron to stop attacks on civilians, residential areas and civilian infrastructure. But there was little immediate evidence that Putin was complying with those demands.

As a number of European countries opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said they planned late Monday to formally ask the Biden administration to grant a temporary immigration reprieve for Ukrainians already in the United States.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he and other senators are finalizing a letter to Biden that would ask the administration to give temporary protected status to the roughly 29,500 Ukrainian nationals who are on various U.S. visas. The status is granted to foreigners who are on U.S. soil and lack permanent status, but who could face significant threats from war or natural disasters if they returned to their home countries. “They include tourists and students and people working here on visas,” Durbin told reporters on Capitol Hill. “That is something we could and should do immediately.”

At the Pentagon, Kirby said the United States has no insight about the exact intentions of the miles-long Russian military column on the move in Ukraine. “The main conclusion we can draw is that they continue to want to move on Kyiv, to take Kyiv, capture Kyiv. How they’re going to do that, whether it’s encirclement or bombardment or street-to-street” fighting, he told reporters, is unknown.

On the fifth day of the invasion, Ukrainians continued to put up strong resistance to the Russians, who attacked Kharkiv and other locations around the periphery of the country, close to its borders with Russia and Belarus.

Ukrainian officials said at least 11 people were killed and more were wounded in rocket strikes and street fighting in residential areas of Kharkiv on Monday morning. Human rights organizations said the Russians were using cluster bombs, although the Pentagon said it could not confirm that.

Each side continued to make claims that were impossible to prove. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces had destroyed 1,146 Ukrainian military infrastructure facilities, hundreds of armored vehicles and field artillery weapons, 42 planes and helicopters, and multiple rocket launch systems.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said that an Israeli citizen in a convoy of his compatriots attempting to flee the country to neighboring Moldova was killed near a checkpoint south of Kyiv, the first known foreign citizen to have been killed in the Ukraine fighting. Israeli media said that Roman Brodsky, in his early 40s, may have been mistaken for a Russian combatant and shot by Ukrainian forces.

Western leaders praised Ukrainians for putting up such a fight, which some said had stymied Russian plans for a quick takeover. Kirby, speaking for the Pentagon, said that “they have made it a tough slog for the Russians to move further south,” and that Russian forces “have not only experienced a stiff and determined resistance … but logistic and sustainment problems.”

Kirby cautioned against drawing “sweeping conclusions” at this early stage in what is likely to be a prolonged conflict. Although officials estimated that about 75 percent of the combat power Russia had amassed on the border had now moved into Ukraine, he said that Putin “still has a lot” in reserve.

“You’ve got to hand it to the Ukrainians, who have been fighting for their country,” Kirby said. “But the Russians will learn from this … they’ve suffered setbacks, but I don’t think we can just assume that they will stay set back. They will work through the challenges.”

Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine, and DeYoung from Washington. John Hudson, Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe in Washington; Kareem Fahim in Istanbul; Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv; Robyn Dixon in Moscow; and Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.