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Ukrainian and Russian peace negotiators agreed to meet near the Belarusian border on Sunday, after Russian military forces reportedly suffered steep casualties but still made battlefield advances — trying to break through in Kyiv, the capital, and seize wider swaths of Donbass in the east.
But even as tentative talks were announced, there was no immediate ceasefire declaration in the first large-scale war in Europe in decades.
The peril only grew as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nuclear forces to move to a higher state of alert, while complaining acidly about Western economic sanctions and NATO military aid for Ukraine, even though Putin is the one who started the war.
Putin’s implicit threat came amid an avalanche of other developments, including Ukraine submitting a formal plea for intervention by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and EU foreign ministers agreeing during an emergency conference call to finance the supplies of weapons to Ukraine and help organize the logistics of getting them there.
EU countries have already begun mobilizing a giant arsenal for Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft systems, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, as well as medical supplies and financial assistance. EU countries on Sunday also began closing their air space to Russian passenger jets, in an accelerating effort to isolate the country.
The announcement of direct peace talks, on the fourth day of all-out war in Ukraine, signaled that the Kremlin was feeling some pressure and potentially miscalculated that Ukraine’s military and government would swiftly collapse.
Putin had long refused direct negotiations with Ukraine to settle the eight-year war in Donbass, which Russia organized and financed. And initially, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had rebuffed the offer of peace talks, saying Moscow had set preconditions that effectively amounted to Ukraine’s total surrender.
A spokesman for Zelenskiy said that the answer to Moscow was the same expletive that Ukrainian marines used to insult a Russian warship before they were all reportedly killed. But by Sunday afternoon, there was a deal to meet at a checkpoint near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, and Ukrainian officials said all preconditions were dropped.
The announcement followed another curious development: the escape, or release, from house judgment in Kyiv of Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy pro-Russian businessman and politician who is one of Putin’s closest personal friends in Ukraine. Medvedchuk had been confined at home since Ukrainian prosecutors last year charged him with treason.
Fierce fighting continued on Sunday. But even as Russian troops penetrated Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the northeast, and seemed poised to put Kyiv and its 3 million residents in a stranglehold, Ukrainian officials described an array of Russian losses in personnel and equipment.
Some 4,300 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded, and 46 military aircraft, 146 tanks, and 706 armored vehicles were destroyed, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at an afternoon news conference. “Hundreds of Russian soldiers became prisoners of war,” Kuleba said, noting the data was preliminary given battles were ongoing.
“Ukraine is not falling,” he said, thanking allies for the support and urging them to keep it up. “We are bleeding, but we continue to successfully defend ourselves.”
Zelenskiy, who on Sunday continued to command the war effort unshaven and wearing military green, posed for a selfie with Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who tweeted itwriting: “It’s impossible to break our defenders.”
The determined and upbeat, if exhausted, resilience voiced by Ukrainian leaders was a stark contrast from the shrill and bitter one of Putin, who appeared in yet another highly-staged Kremlin video along with his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff of the Russian military, Valery Gerasimov.
“The top officials of the leading NATO countries allow aggressive statements against our country,” Putin griped, a day after Germany and other European countries said they would speed weapons and other military assistance to help Ukraine repel the Russians.
“Therefore, I order the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty,” Putin declared.
It was not the first time in recent weeks that Putin reminded the world that he has the power to use weapons of mass destruction. At a news conference following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin complained that Ukraine did not accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea and he claimed that Kyiv had plans to retake the peninsula by military force.
If that happened and Ukraine were a member of NATO, Putin said, there would be war. “We also understand that Russia is one of the leading nuclear states,” Putin said putting his finger in the air at a French journalist as he spoke. “There will be no winners, and you will be pulled into this conflict against your will.”
And in declaring his military invasion of Ukraine, Putin warned other countries not to interfere, saying: “The consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Some military experts expressed worry that Putin seemed increasingly isolated and irrational, and that he could take rash actions to avoid military defeat.
As the war and accompanying commentary of it played out in real-time on social media, there appeared to be a growing consensus among analysts that the Russian military had made some key strategic missteps and was suffering far greater losses than anticipated, especially given its advantage in troop numbers and sophisticated weaponry.
Russia’s main goals seemed to be to encircle Kyiv in a bid to topple the government, and to drive forces south from Kharkiv and north from near Mariupol near the Azov Sea, cutting off the Ukrainian forces that have been massed in Donbass to fight the separatists there .
But in attempting to achieve those objectives, the Russian military has confronted surprisingly strong and determined Ukrainian forces, which appeared to be operating from the start with guerilla-style tactics.
At the same time, there have been signs of deepening public misgivings about the war in Russia, where there have been hundreds of arrests of anti-war protesters in recent days.
Ukraine, meanwhile, sought to reach out directly to ordinary Russians. The ministry of internal affairs announced it had set up a telephone service called “Come Back from Ukraine Alive” for Russian women worried about their sons, husbands and boyfriends who had been sent to war.
Separately on Sunday, Zelenskiy’s office announced the formation of a new unit, the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, to be made up of foreigners who wish to fight for the country.
“Foreigners willing to defend Ukraine and world order as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, I invite you to contact foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in your respective countries,” Kuleba said on Twitter† “Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.”
The call for foreign soldiers followed an outpouring of voluntarism on behalf of Ukraine, including by hackers and other cyber experts who have taken to their keyboards in an effort to weaken Russia and undermine its military operation.