Ukraine: Several killed in rocket strikes as US warns Russian forces may try to encircle Kyiv

Ukrainian delegate says ceasefire talks with Russian side on Monday were difficult

Russian and Ukrainian officials met on the Belarusian border to discuss a ceasefire on Monday while invading Russian forces met with determined resistance from Ukrainian troops and civilians on a fifth day of conflict.

A member of the Ukrainian delegation said after the talks ended that the negotiations were difficult.

“The Russian side, unfortunately, still has a very biased view of the destructive processes it has launched,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter after attending the talks near the Belarusian border.

At least 11 people were killed on Monday in rocket strikes by Russian forces on residential districts of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the head of the regional administration, Oleg Synegubov, said.

The northeastern city, Ukraine's second largest, has become one of the major battlegrounds since Russia invaded Ukraine last week in the biggest assault on a European state since the second World War. Missile strikes have also targeted other major Ukrainian cities, such as the capital Kyiv.

Mr Synegubov said Russian forces were firing artillery at residential areas of Kharkiv where there were no Ukrainian army positions or strategic infrastructure.

“This is happening in the daytime, when people have gone out to the pharmacy, for groceries, or for drinking water. It’s a crime,” he said.

Russian forces also blew up a gas pipeline in the city, the Ukrainian state service of special communications said, prompting the government to warn of a potential “environmental catastrophe” and to urge people to protect themselves from the smoke by covering their windows.

Air raid sirens wailed across the largely empty streets of Kyiv on Monday warning of another possible missile attack by Russia as the city girds for battles to come as Russian forces approach.

The US expects Russian forces to try to encircle Kyiv in the coming days and could become more aggressive out of frustration with their slow advance on the Ukrainian capital, a senior US defence official said on Monday.

Images from the US satellite company Maxar showed a Russian military convoy stretching over 27km and moving closer to Kyiv, which remains under Ukrainian government control.

The office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Monday said it will seek court approval to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.

Delegations

Talks between Ukraine and Russia began on Monday morning and photos of the delegations sitting opposite each other at a long table were published.

Ukraine said its goal for the talks was an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. Russia has been cagier, with the Kremlin declining to comment on Moscow’s aim in negotiations.

The Ukrainian delegation included defence minister Oleksii Reznikov among others.

Russian president Vladimir Putin told France's Emmanuel Macron in a call on Monday that a Ukraine settlement was only possible if Kyiv was neutral, "denazified" and "demilitarised" and Russian control over annexed Crimea was formally recognised, the Kremlin said, referring to claims from Moscow that have been dismissed as propaganda by western leaders.

Mr Putin has ordered his military to put Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, in the latest signal from the Russian leader that he is prepared to resort to the most extreme level of brinkmanship is his effort to achieve victory in Ukraine.

The talks on Monday came as Moscow took emergency measures to shield its economy from the impact of tightening western sanctions following the invasion. The US and its European allies moved in recent days to sanction the central bank in Moscow and cut off various Russian lenders from the critical Swift financial messaging system.

Russia’s central bank temporarily banned non-residents from selling securities and doubled its benchmark rate, while financial authorities imposed measures that will see Russian companies sell most of their hard currency.

Fifa and Uefa on Monday suspended Russian teams from competing in international and club football following the invasion.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy meanwhile posted photos of himself signing an application for EU membership for Ukraine, a largely symbolic move that sought to solidify his country's bond with the West.

Civilian casualties

Meanwhile, a UN human rights monitoring team has confirmed 376 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 94 deaths, after three days of clashes, a UN report showed on Monday. It said the fighting had triggered “severe humanitarian consequences” and that casualties could be considerably higher.

The number of people fleeing Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began has crossed the half-million point, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said on Twitter. UN agencies said last week the figure could climb to as many as 4 million.

The US has expelled 12 Russian UN diplomats over national security concerns, US and Russian diplomats said on Monday. The US mission to the UN described the Russian diplomats as “intelligence operatives” who had been “engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security”. “This action has been in development for several months,” said US mission spokesperson Olivia Dalton.

Prior to the talks, Mr Zelenskiy announced that a delegation from Kyiv would meet Russian officials without preconditions, but added: “I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try, so that later not a single citizen of Ukraine has any doubt that I, as president, tried to stop the war.”

Ukrainian officials initially rejected proposed talks, saying any talks should take place elsewhere than Belarus, since it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian troops as a staging ground for the invasion.

It was not immediately clear what Mr Putin is seeking in the talks, or from the war itself, although western officials believe he wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s cold war-era influence.

In the absence of a quick military breakthrough, Mr Putin signalled he was prepared to escalate his onslaught on Ukraine, while taking the unprecedented step of explicitly brandishing Russia’s nuclear arsenal in an effort to deter western support for Ukraine. On Sunday, however, that support continued to grow.

The EU announced it would fund weapons supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces, including fighter jets, block European airspace to all Russian aircraft including the private jets of oligarchs, and banned the Kremlin’s propaganda channel RT, and its news agency, Sputnik.

For the first time in its history, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to a country under attack, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said in relation to the move.

BP announced it would divest its nearly 20 per cent stake in the Russian oil corporation Rosneft.

Turkey declared that it would close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to the Russian navy, stopping its vessels moving between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Sweden will send military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, helmets and body armour, its prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, said on Sunday.

Emergency session

On Monday, the 193-nation UN General Assembly opened its first emergency session in decades in order to deal with the Ukraine invasion, with assembly president Abdulla Shahid calling for an immediate ceasefire, maximum restraint by all parties and “a full return to diplomacy and dialogue”. Russia voted against the session, but was unable to stop it.

The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told CNN, in reaction to Mr Putin's decision to put Russia's nuclear forces on high alert: "This is dangerous rhetoric. This is a behaviour which is irresponsible."

Mr Putin has told foreign countries not to interfere in his invasion of Ukraine, saying it could lead to “consequences they have never seen”. He has positioned anti-air missiles and other advanced missile systems in Belarus and deployed his fleet to the Black Sea in an effort to prevent a western intervention in Ukraine.

The government in Belarus on Sunday claimed that a referendum had approved constitutional changes, revoking the country’s neutrality and its nuclear-free status. The changes would allow Russia to station nuclear weapons on Belarus territory.

The US ambassador to the UN responded to the news from Moscow while appearing on CBS. “President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “And we have to continue to condemn his actions in the strongest possible way.”

Defence spending

In a historic announcement to the Bundestag, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said a fund of €100 billion would be set up immediately to boost the strength of his country's armed forces, as he also announced a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years.

Mr Scholz admitted that the urgency of the Ukraine crisis had forced Germany’s decision to invest in the military, telling an emergency session of parliament: “It is clear that we must invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and democracy.”

He called it “Germany’s historical responsibility” to ensure that Mr Putin “does not turn the clocks back”.

The move came after the German government made the surprise announcement on Saturday that it would be sending weapons and other supplies to Ukraine, including 1,000 anti-tank weapons, 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles and thousands of gallons of petrol.

From St Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis condemned the invasion, saying those who make war should not be deluded into thinking that God is on their side.

As Russia’s international isolation deepened, there were growing signs of disquiet from Russia’s financial elite, following earlier protests from celebrities and sports people.

The billionaire Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman, who was born in Ukraine but made his fortune in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed, told his staff in a letter that the conflict was a tragedy for both countries.

“This crisis will cost lives and damage two nations who have been brothers for hundreds of years,” he wrote in a letter seen by the Financial Times that did not criticise Mr Putin directly.

Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch and ally of the Russian president, tweeted: "Peace is the priority. Negotiations must start ASAP." – Agencies