Ukraine pounded as Russia seizes key city ahead of talks

Ukraine’s leader vowed on Thursday that Moscow would be forced to pay to rebuild his shattered country, as warring sides prepared for ceasefire talks after the first major city fell to Russian forces.

The invasion, now in its eighth day, has driven a million Ukrainians from their homes and plunged Russia into growing isolation as a global pariah in finance, diplomacy and sport. .

The UN has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes, as the Russian army bombards Ukrainian towns with shells and missiles, forcing civilians to cower in basements.

“We are going to restore every house, every street, every city and we say to Russia: learn the word ‘reparations’,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video statement.

“You will repay us in full for everything you have done against our state, against every Ukrainian,” he said.

Zelensky says thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed since Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked the world by invading Ukraine, allegedly to demilitarize and “denazify” the Western threat to its borders.

Announcing its own toll for the first time this week, Moscow said it had lost 498 troops, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would hail their sacrifice at a meeting with his security chiefs later. Thursday.

“It’s a huge tragedy,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

“But we also admire the heroism of our soldiers. Their exploits will go down in the history books, their exploits in the fight against the Nazis.”

The Kremlin was condemned for comparing the government of Zelensky, who is Jewish, to that of Germany during World War II.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, maintained a verbal barrage, accusing Western politicians of focusing on “nuclear war” after Putin placed his strategic forces on high alert.

As a long military column appears pinned down north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Russian troops have seized Kherson, a Black Sea city of 290,000, after a three-day siege that left it short of food and medicine.

Russian troops advanced elsewhere on the southern front and besieged the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, which was without water or electricity in the depths of winter.

The Russians “just wanted to destroy us all”, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said, accusing their forces of attacking residential buildings.

Ukrainian military authorities said residential areas and other areas of the eastern city of Kharkiv had been “shelled all night” by indiscriminate shelling, which UN prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.

Oleg Rubak’s wife, Katia, 29, was crushed in the rubble of their family home in Zhytomyr, 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Kiev, by a Russian missile strike.

“One minute I saw her come into the room, a minute later there was nothing left,” Rubak, 32, told AFP, standing stunned and angry amid the ruins in the freezing cold of winter.

“I hope she is in heaven and everything is perfect for her.”

He sobbed, apologized and continued, “I want the whole world to hear my story.”

– Unwanted status –

The UN says the war has displaced more than a million people, after Putin launched his offensive in a bid to demilitarize Ukraine and overthrow the Western government of Zelensky.

“Protect civilians, for God’s sake, in Ukraine, let’s do our job,” UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths told AFP in Geneva.

The Russian president now finds himself an international pariah, with his country under swinging sanctions that sent the ruble into another free fall in currency markets on Thursday.

France has seized a superyacht belonging to a company linked to Igor Sechin, chief executive of Russian energy giant Rosneft and a close confidant of Putin.

Russia’s central bank – whose foreign exchange reserves have been frozen in the West – has imposed a 30% tax on all hard currency sales, following a run on lenders by ordinary Russians.

Ongoing financial costs were underlined as ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s downgraded Russia’s sovereign debt to junk status.

Swedish furniture giant Ikea has become the latest to halt operations in Russia, as well as Belarus, saying nearly 15,000 staff would be affected by the suspension in response to the war.

Moscow’s sporting isolation deepened as the International Paralympic Committee, staging a sharp U-turn, banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Beijing Winter Games.

The UN General Assembly voted 141 to 5 to demand that Russia withdraw “immediately” from Ukraine. Only four countries have supported Russia: Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria. China abstained.

The German government plans to deliver another 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a source said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned the human costs are already ‘huge’ as he prepares to travel to Eastern Europe to coordinate support for Ukraine and ceasefire efforts. fire.

Kiev is sending a delegation to ceasefire talks due to start around 12:00 GMT at an undisclosed location on the Belarus-Poland border, but has warned it will not accept “ultimatums”.

A first round of talks on Monday yielded no breakthrough.

– Leave everything behind –

Many Ukrainians have now fled to neighboring countries, according to the rapidly rising tally by the UN refugee agency.

“We left everything there as they came and ruined our lives,” refugee Svitlana Mostepanenko told AFP in Prague.

Nathalia Lypka, a German teacher from the Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia, arrived in Berlin with her 21-year-old daughter.

“My husband and my son stayed… My husband had already served in the army, and he had to return to service,” she said, before boarding a train for Stuttgart where friends told her. were waiting.

Putin’s invasion seemed crippled by poor logistics, tactical errors and fierce resistance from the Ukrainian military, as well as growing ranks of volunteer fighters.

Dozens of images emerged of burned Russian tanks, the charred remains of transporters and disarmed Ukrainians confronting bewildered occupying forces.

US officials say the massive column of Russian military vehicles amassed north of Kiev has “stalled” due to fuel and food shortages.

Russian authorities have imposed a media blackout on what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation”.

Radio station Ekho Moskvy, a symbol of new media freedom in post-Soviet Russia, said it would close after being taken off the air due to its coverage of the invasion.

But Russians have consistently turned out for large anti-war demonstrations across the country, in direct challenge to Putin’s 20-year rule.

Thousands of anti-war protesters have been arrested.

“I couldn’t stay at home. We have to stop this war,” student Anton Kislov, 21, told AFP.

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