By Maria Tsvetkova and Aleksandar Vasovic
KYIV (Reuters) – A defiant President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv remained under Ukrainian control on Saturday as Russian forces renewed their assault, pounding the capital and other cities with artillery and cruise missiles.
A U.S. defence official said Ukraine’s forces were putting up “very determined resistance” to the three-pronged Russian advance that has sent hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing westwards, clogging major highways and railway lines.
“We have withstood and are successfully repelling enemy attacks. The fighting goes on,” Zelenskiy said in a video message from the streets of Kyiv posted on his social media.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he called a special military operation before dawn on Thursday, ignoring Western warnings and saying the “neo-Nazis” ruling Ukraine threatened Russia’s security.
Top Russian security official and ex-President Dmitry Medvedev said military operations would be waged relentlessly until Putin’s goals were achieved.
That ratcheting up of Russia’s rhetoric came as the Kremlin said its troops were advancing again after Putin ordered a pause on Friday for anticipated talks that never happened.
An adviser to Zelenskiy denied that Kyiv had refused negotiations but said Russia had attached unacceptable conditions. He also said it was untrue that Russia had paused troop movements.
Russia’s assault is the biggest on a European state since World War Two and threatens to upend the continent’s post-Cold War order.
Medvedev said new sanctions on Russia were a sign of the West’s impotence in the conflict and he hinted at a severing of diplomatic ties, saying it was time to “padlock the embassies”.
The United States has observed more than 250 launches of Russian missiles, mostly short-range, at Ukrainian targets, the U.S. defence official said.
“We know that (Russian forces) have not made the progress that they wanted to make, particularly in the north. They have been frustrated by what they have seen is a very determined resistance,” the official said, without providing evidence.
Moscow says it is taking care not to hit civilian sites.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally, said on Saturday his fighters were also deployed in Ukraine. He said Russian forces could easily take Kyiv and other large cities but their task was to avoid loss of life.
Putin has said he must eliminate what he calls a serious threat to his country from its smaller neighbour, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine – a charge dismissed by Kyiv and its Western allies as baseless propaganda.
CAPITAL UNDER CURFEW
Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko said there was no major Russian military presence in the capital, but that saboteur groups were active. The metro system was being used as a shelter for citizens and trains have stopped running, he said.
Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion said 35 people, including two children, had been wounded overnight and that he was imposing a curfew from Saturday evening until Monday morning.
Ukrainians faced lengthy queues for money at cash machines and for fuel at petrol stations, where individual sales are mostly limited to 20 litres. Many shops in the city centre were closed and the streets were largely empty on Saturday afternoon.
“I was smart enough to stock up food for a at least a month,” said Serhiy, out for a walk before the curfew. “I did not trust the politicians that this would end peacefully.”
At least 198 Ukrainians, including three children, have been killed and 1,115 people wounded so far in Russia’s invasion, Interfax quoted Ukraine’s Health Ministry as saying. It was unclear whether the numbers comprised only civilian casualties.
Interfax later cited the regional administration in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, saying 17 civilians had been killed and 73 wounded by Russian shelling.
Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, won independence from Moscow in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union and wants to join NATO and the EU, goals Russia opposes. Putin says Ukraine is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their distinctive history and identity.
REFUGEES AND PROTESTS
Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces had captured Melitopol, a city of 150,000 in southeastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials were not immediately available to comment and Britain cast doubt on the report.
If confirmed, it would be the first significant population centre the Russians have seized.
The city of Mariupol, a key port on the Sea of Azov in southeast Ukraine, remained under relentless shelling on Saturday, its mayor Vadim Boychenko said in a televised address.
“They are shelling schools, apartment blocks,” he said.
About 100,000 people have crossed into Poland from Ukraine since Thursday, including 9,000 who have entered since 7 a.m. on Saturday, Polish Deputy Interior Minister Pawel Szefernaker said.
“The most important thing is that people survive,” said Katharina Asselborn, wiping away tears while waiting at the Polish border for her sister, aunt and her three children to arrive from their home in Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa.
“The last 30 kilometres to the border they went on foot.”
Ukrainians were also crossing the borders into Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Protests against the war took place in Berlin, Berne, London, Tokyo, Sydney and other cities worldwide.
“I’m here because I’m extremely ashamed for my country of birth,” Valery Bragar, a Russian who is now a Swiss citizen, said at a rally in Geneva.
The crisis has galvanised the NATO Western military alliance, which has announced a series of moves to reinforce its eastern flank.
Germany has approved the export of 400 rocket propelled grenades from German military stocks in the Netherlands to Ukraine, its defence ministry said, in a shift in policy after Berlin faced criticism for refusing to send weapons, unlike other Western allies.
Western nations have also announced new sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports.
They have stopped short of forcing Russia out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments, but the governor of a central bank in the euro zone told Reuters on Saturday such a decision was “just a matter of time, very short time, days”.
In one of the first visible signs of sanctions being enforced over the invasion, France seized a car cargo ship in the Channel on Saturday that has been linked to the son of a former Russian spy chief.
The invasion is also affecting Russia’s sports, cultural and other links. On Saturday Poland and Sweden said their national soccer teams would not play its World Cup qualifiers against Russia next month.
(Reporting by Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic, Natalia Zinets and Maria Tsvetkova in Kyiv, Aleksandar Vasovic in Mariupol, Alan Charlish in Medyka, Poland, Fedja Grulovic in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Robert Birsel, Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson; Editing by William Mallard and David Clarke)