PM chairs meet, 4 Ministers to coordinate evacuation
KYIV/ NEW DELHI, Feb 28:
Russian and Ukrainian delegations met for talks today amid high hopes but low expectations for any diplomatic breakthrough, after Moscow unleashed the biggest land war in Europe since World War II but met unexpectedly stiff resistance.
As outgunned but determined Ukrainian forces slowed the Russian advance and sanctions crippled the Russian economy, the military confirmed that its nuclear forces were on high alert, following President Vladimir Putin’s order. While that raised the unimaginable specter of nuclear conflict, it was unclear what practical effect it had.
A tense calm reigned Monday in Kyiv, explosions and gunfire were heard in embattled cities in eastern Ukraine, and terrified Ukrainian families huddled overnight in shelters, basements or corridors.
“I sit and pray for these negotiations to end successfully, so that they reach an agreement to end the slaughter, and so there is no more war,” said Alexandra Mikhailova, weeping as she clutched her cat in a makeshift shelter in the strategic southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Around her, parents sought to console children and keep them warm.
Exact death tolls are unclear, but the U.N. Human rights chief said 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in five days of fighting – warning that figure was likely a vast undercount – and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead. More than 500,000 people have fled the country since the invasion, another U.N. Official said Monday – among millions who have left their homes.
Still, a tiny sliver of hope emerged as the first face-to-face talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials since the war began opened Monday. The delegations met at a long table with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said it would demand an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Russian troops.
But while Ukraine sent its defense minister and other top officials, the Russian delegation was led by Putin’s adviser on culture – an unlikely envoy for ending the war and a sign of how Moscow views the talks.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore up the tanking ruble and the U.S. And European countries upped weapons shipments to Ukraine. While they hope to curb Putin’s aggression, the measures also risked pushing an increasingly cornered Putin closer to the edge – and inflicted pain on ordinary Russians.
In Moscow, Russians lined up Monday to withdraw cash as Western sanctions threatened their livelihoods and savings. In Kyiv, Ukrainians lined up to buy food and water after two nights trapped inside by curfew.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Putin is seeking in the talks, or from the war itself.
Western officials believe Putin wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
The increasingly erratic Putin made a clear link between ever-tightening sanctions and his decision Sunday to raise Russia’s nuclear posture. He also pointed at “aggressive statements” by NATO, a reference to his long-held stance that the U.S.-led alliance is an existential threat to Russia.
On Monday, the Defense Ministry said extra personnel were deployed to Russian nuclear forces, and that the high alert status applies to all their components: the forces that oversee land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the fleet of nuclear-capable strategic bombers.
It was not immediately clear whether the Kremlin announcement means any nuclear-armed aircraft could already be in the air around Ukraine. But the move is a clear escalation.
While Russia and the United States typically have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces that are prepared for combat at all times, nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.
U.S. and British officials played down Putin’s nuclear threat as posturing. But for many, they stirred up memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and concerns that the West could be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia.
Putin also stepped up his rhetoric Monday, denouncing the U.S. and its allies as an “empire of lies.” He described Western allies as U.S. “satellites which humbly fawn on it, kowtow to it, copy its conduct and joyfully accept the rules.”
In another possible escalation, neighboring Belarus could send troops to help Russia as soon as Monday, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of current U.S. Intelligence assessments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
U.S. Officials say they believe the invasion has been more difficult, and slower, than the Kremlin envisioned, though that could change as Moscow adapts. The British Defense Ministry said Monday that the bulk of Putin’s forces are about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Kyiv, their advance having been slowed by Ukrainian forces.
Battles also broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the country’s south came under assault from Russian forces. Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov, is “hanging on,” said Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich. An oil depot was reportedly bombed in the eastern city of Sumy. Ukrainian protesters demonstrated against encroaching Russian troops in the port of Berdyansk.
In a war being waged both on the ground and online, cyberattacks hit Ukrainian embassies around the world, and Russian media.
Meanwhile, Russia and Ukraine on Monday clashed in the UN General Assembly, which convened a rare emergency special session on the escalating crisis, with Kyiv calling on the UN body to demand that Moscow stop its offensive against it and Moscow asserting that it did not begin the hostilities but is seeking to end the war.
The 193-member UN General Assembly convened the rare and unprecedented emergency special session on Russia’s military operation in eastern Ukraine after the 15-nation Security Council voted on a resolution to refer the crisis to the most representative body of the world organisation.
President of the 76th session of the General Assembly Abdulla Shahid presided over the meeting, only the 11th such emergency session of the General Assembly since 1950.
With the adoption of the UNSC resolution on Sunday, it was for the first time in 40 years that the Council decided to call for an emergency special session in the General Assembly.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya began his impassioned statement to the General Assembly by reading out in Russian, messages exchanged between a Russian soldier and his mother moments the soldier was killed.
“We have been prompted to call for an emergency special session as the level of threat to the global security has been equated to that of the Second World War or even higher following Putin’s order to put an alert Russian nuclear forces. What Madness,” he said.
In New Delhi, Stepping up its efforts to evacuate thousands of Indians stuck in Ukraine, the Government on Monday decided to send four Union ministers to the neighbouring countries of the war-torn country to coordinate the evacuation process even as the external affairs ministry said nearly 8,000 nationals have returned in the last fortnight.
The decision to send Hardeep Puri, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kiren Rijiju and V K Singh as “special envoys” of India to coordinate the evacuation process was taken at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also held another high-level meeting in the evening on Ukraine, government sources said.
Official sources said Modi spoke to all four ministers personally to convey the decision that they will be coordinating evacuation efforts on the ground from the countries in Ukraine’s neighbourhood.
Scindia will take care of evacuation efforts from Romania and Moldova while Rijiju will go to Slovakia, sources said, adding Puri will go to Hungary and Singh will be in Poland to manage the evacuation.
The decision to send these ministers came a day after Modi asserted that ensuring the safety of Indian students and evacuating them is the Government’s top priority.
Monday meeting was also attended by several ministers, including External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla among other senior officials.
Also on Monday, Shringla briefed a Parliamentary Panel on the situation in Ukraine amid a Russian military offensive and India’s efforts to evacuate its citizens through land check-posts with five neighbouring countries, sources said.
They said the foreign secretary informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs that in the next two days the government is planning to operate 13 evacuation flights to the neighbouring nations of the war-torn country and the number of daily flights would be increased to nine.
During the briefing, Shringla also said that Russian-speaking officers had been sent to the border check-posts and Indian embassies in Ukraine’s five neighbouring countries — Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Moldova — to boost evacuation efforts.
Asserting that India has managed to accelerate its efforts to get its nationals out of Ukraine in the last 24 hours, the MEA said a total of 1,396 Indians were brought back home in six flights as part of the evacuation mission.
MEA Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi also said the total number of Indians who have left Ukraine since India issued the first advisory earlier this month is around 8,000.
India is also sending humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, the ministry said.
Calling Modi’s decision to send four ministers a “visionary step”, Singh told reporters “I am leaving for Poland today and will coordinate with both Ukraine and Poland to facilitate the evacuation of Indian citizens stranded in Ukraine.”The other three ministers are likely to leave on Tuesday.(PTI)