Zelensky says Kyiv still under Ukraine’s control and he will arm anyone who will fight Russians

As fierce street clashes commence in capital, president pushes for urgent ascension to European Union

Andy Gregory
Saturday 26 February 2022 18:19 GMT
‘We will give you arms’: Zelensky ask people to defend Ukraine during speech

Kyiv is still under Ukraine’s control following a night of Russian assaults on the capital, president Volodymyr Zelensky has said, declaring he will arm anyone who wants to help resist Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

“We have withstood and are successfully repelling enemy attacks. The fighting goes on,” the Ukrainian president said in an emotional speech on Saturday after small Russian raiding groups’ attempts to infiltrate the capital led to street skirmishes, with heavy gunfire and explosions heard through the night.

Mr Zelensky accused Russian troops of hitting civilian areas and infrastructure, but said Moscow’s plan to quickly seize Kyiv and install a puppet government had been thwarted, as fighting persisted at the outskirts of the city in feared attempts to clear routes for Russia’s main column of troops.

“Everybody who wants to come over here to defend our country, please come and we will give you arms,” he said.

Going on to address Russia’s people, he claimed thousands of Russian troops who had been killed and hundreds taken as prisoners of war “can’t understand why they were sent into Ukraine – to die, to kill others”.

“The sooner you tell your government that the war has to stop, the more people will stay alive.”

Despite fierce fighting in the south of the country – close to Crimea, in Kherson, and in the Black Sea ports of Mykolaiv, Odesa and around Mariupol – Russia has failed to make any significant gains, an aide to Mr Zelensky claimed.

“Ukraine hasn't simply withstood it. Ukraine is winning,” presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said.

But the Ukrainian death toll from Vladimir Putin’s war continues to mount, with the country’s health minister saying on Saturday that three children were among at least 198 Ukrainians killed since Russia’s invasion began three days ago – with 33 children among the 1,115 reported injured.

Kyiv’s forces are defending their country’s “freedom and European future”, Mr Zelensky said, insisting that Russia’s invasion of its sovereign neighbour was “a crucial moment to close the long-standing discussion once and for all and decide on Ukraine’s membership” in the European Union.

Firefighters at an apartment building damaged by recent shelling in Kyiv (REUTERS/Glen Garanich)

Mr Zelensky said he had discussed “effective assistance to our country from [the EU] in this heroic struggle” with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, adding: “I believe that the EU also chooses Ukraine.”

As Ukraine’s foreign minister said his French counterpart had supported cutting Russia from the international Swift payment system in a phone call – a move urged by Kyiv amid reluctance across some European nations heavily reliant on Russian gas – Mr Zelensky said Ukraine now had “almost full support” from EU countries to do so, urging Germany and Hungary to show “courage” and back the bid.

In a significant development driving Mr Putin closer to pariah status, his longtime admirer Viktor Orban said Hungary would support all proposed sanctions against Moscow at the European level, potentially including banning Russia from Swift.

Amid fears of a major refugee crisis, with miles-long queues of cars filmed at the Polish border, Hungary’s fiercely anti-immigration prime minister said his country was giving refuge to all citizens and legal residents of Ukraine, regardless of whether they are subject to the military conscription decree signed by Mr Zelensky this week.

Earlier on Saturday, Mr Zelensky filmed himself in downtown Kyiv, vowing to keep fighting for the city in a defiant clip showing he had survived the night and had not fled the capital, contrary to false reports.

“Good morning everybody. Do not believe fake news. I am here,” the president said, hours after refusing an American offer to evacuate the city.

“We will not lay down our weapons. We will defend our country. Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”

‘Our weapon is our truth’: Zelensky vows to fight on in Kyiv

Bracing his people for an overnight assault in which “the enemy will be using all available means to break our resistance”, Mr Zelensky said on Friday: “This night we must persevere. The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now.”

As the fighting began, Kyiv officials urged residents to remain in shelters and avoid going near windows or balconies. The capital’s curfew was extended from 5pm until 8am, with “all civilians on the street” during these hours to be “considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups”.

One battle took place near a military unit to the west of the city centre, Ukraine’s military said, while Kyiv’s mayor Vitaly Klitschko warned of explosions near a major power plant the Russians were trying to seize, and said a missile had hit a high-rise building near Zhuliany airport, injuring at least six civilians.

In accounts confirmed by two US officials, Ukraine’s military said it had shot down two Russian Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircrafts, near Vasylkiv and Bila Tserkva, which lie 25 and 50 miles south of the capital respectively. While these aircrafts can carry up to 125 paratroopers, it was unclear how many were on board.

The street clashes in the capital followed fighting that pummelled bridges, schools and apartment buildings, and resulted in hundreds of casualties, as a United Nations spokesperson warned the international body was “gravely concerned” and was receiving increasing reports of civilian casualties.

“The military action by the Russian Federation clearly violates international law,” said the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, adding: “It puts at risk countless lives and it must be immediately halted.”

The comments came as Russia vetoed an emergency resolution by the UN Security Council which would have condemned Moscow’s invasion, the most serious military conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

Speaking on Saturday morning, the UK’s armed forces minister James Heappey commended the “incredible resistance” put up by Ukrainian forces in defence of Kyiv.

The situation is “very grave” but the fighting in the capital has so far been confined to “very isolated pockets of Russian special forces and paratroopers”, Mr Heappey told Sky News.

This infographic, created for The Independent by statistics agency Statista, shows the relative military strength of Ukraine and Russia (Statista/The Independent)

“The main armoured columns approaching Kyiv are still some way off. That is a testament to the incredible resistance the Ukrainian armoured forces have put up over the last 48 hours or so," he said. “Clearly the Russian plan is to take Kyiv but the reality is that the Ukrainians are thwarting them thus far.

“It looks like the Russian plan is nowhere near running to schedule. I think that will be a great cause of concern for President Putin and rather points to the fact that there was a lot of hubris in the Russian plan and that he may be awfully advised.”

With defence secretary Ben Wallace having chaired a conference on Friday with 25 nations, some of whom pledged to send arms and other aid, Mr Heappey said government is working on plans to support a resistance movement and a Ukrainian government in exile if Kyiv does fall.

However, despite a call from Tory former minister Julian Lewis to “rip up” bureaucracy and “make it as easy as possible” for Ukrainians to reach the UK, ministers are pressing ahead with plans to make arriving in the UK “without permission” a criminal offence punishable by up to four years in prison.

Follow live updates on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Meanwhile, Mr Heappey warned that the West faces a potentially decades-long period of “quite acute competition” with Russia.

“There is a 10, 20-year project where the West will be back into quite acute competition, where imposing cost on Putin and the kleptocrats who surround him so that he fails, and he is seen to fail, and he has no opportunity to anoint his successor, and Russia fundamentally changes as a country as a consequence because the Russian people have had enough of him,” he said.

“That is something where the UK and our allies have got time to make good strategic decisions.”

Later in the afternoon, as footage emerged of a Ukrainian mocking Russian soldiers who said their tank had run out of fuel – apparently on the road to Kyiv – the Ministry of Defence said intelligence suggested the speed of the Russian advance had “temporarily slowed likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties and strong Ukrainian resistance”.

"Russian forces are bypassing major Ukrainian population centres while leaving forces to encircle and isolate them,” the UK ministry said.

“Overnight clashes in Kyiv are likely to have involved limited numbers of pre-positioned Russian sabotage groups. The capture of Kyiv remains Russia's primary military objective.”

The US has announced a further $350m package of US military assistance to Ukraine, said by a senior defence official to include Javelin anti-tank weapons.

Ground routes for delivery of the military materials “would certainly be on the list of options we would consider”, the official said, adding that Washington has delivered military assistance to Ukraine by unspecified means as recently as “the last couple of days”.

The US estimates that more than 50 per cent of Russian combat power arrayed along Ukraine’s borders has entered now Ukraine, according to a senior defence official – up from an estimate on Friday that one third of the Russian force had been committed to the fight.

Additional reporting by agencies

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