KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – Russia unleashed a wave of attacks on Ukraine targetting airfields and fuel facilities in what appeared to be the next phase of an invasion that has been slowed by fierce resistance. The United States (US) and European Union (EU) responded with weapons and ammunition for the outnumbered Ukrainians and powerful sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.
Huge explosions lit up the sky early yesterday south of the capital, Kyiv, where people hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale assault by Russian forces.
Flames billowed into the air before dawn from an oil depot near the Zhuliany airport, about 25 miles south of the capital, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office and the mayor of the nearby town of Vasylkiv.
Zelenskyy’s office also said Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, prompting the government to warn people to protect themselves from the smoke by covering their windows with damp cloth or gauze.
“We will fight for as long as needed to liberate our country,” Zelenskyy vowed.
Terrified men, women and children sought safety inside and underground, and the government maintained a 39-hour curfew to keep people off the streets. More than 150,000 Ukrainians fled for Poland, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, and the United Nations warned the number could grow to four million if fighting escalates.
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.
To aid Ukraine’s ability to hold out, the US pledged an additional USD350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armour 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 US, EU 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.
It was unclear how much territory Russian forces had seized or to what extent their advance had been stalled. Britain’s Ministry of Defence said “the speed of the Russian advance has temporarily slowed likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties and strong Ukrainian resistance”.
A senior US defence official said more than half the Russian combat power that was massed 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 US assessments.
The curfew forcing everyone in Kyiv inside was set to last through this morning. The relative quiet of the capital was sporadically broken by gunfire. Fighting on the city’s outskirts suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces.
Small groups of Russian troops were reported inside Kyiv, but Britain and the US said the bulk of the forces were 19 miles from the city’s centre as of Saturday afternoon.
Russia claims its assault on Ukraine from the north, east and south is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighbourhoods have been hit.
Ukraine’s health minister reported on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded during Europe’s largest land war since World War II. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties.