Russian Rocket Barrage Kills Civilians as First Talks Show No Progress

KYIV, Ukraine — The first talks between Ukraine and Russia aimed at halting the Russian invasion were eclipsed Monday by a deadly Russian rocket assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, that raised new alarms about how far the Kremlin was willing to go to subjugate its smaller neighbor.

The bombardment of a residential area of Kharkiv, which may have included internationally banned cluster munitions, killed at least nine civilians and wounded dozens.

With the Ukrainian-Russian talks ending with little more than an agreement to meet again, the bombardment signaled a potential turn in the biggest military mobilization in Europe since World War II, in which Russia has met unexpectedly stiff resistance by Ukrainians and strong condemnation from much of the world.

“Today showed that this is not only a war, it is the murder of us, the Ukrainian people,” Kharkiv’s mayor, Igor Terekhov, said in a video posted on Facebook. “This is the first time in its many-year history that the city of Kharkiv has been through something like this: shells that hit residential homes, killing and maiming innocent citizens.”

Russian forces have been shelling the outskirts of Kharkiv, an eastern Ukrainian city with 1.5 million people, since launching an invasion last week. But they appeared to be avoiding heavily populated areas.

Ukrainian soldiers on Friday in Kharkiv.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

On Monday, the fifth day of the Russian assault, that changed.

Mr. Terekhov said four people had been killed when they emerged from bomb shelters to find water. And he said a family of five — two adults and three children — was burned alive when a shell hit their car. Another 37 people were wounded, he said.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the treaty that bans cluster munitions, which are lethal bomblets that explode in midair over a wide area, hitting military targets and civilians alike. But their use might well mark a new — and bloodier — chapter in the battle for Ukraine.

“We are convinced that this was a cluster munition attack,” Stephen Goose, a munitions expert at Human Rights Watch, said in an email.

The indiscriminate nature of the Kharkiv assault, made clear in videos verified by The New York Times, may indicate impatience by President Vladimir V. Putin with his military’s progress in what many outside analysts — and some Ukrainian commanders themselves — had predicted would be a fast Russian victory over an outgunned and outmanned adversary.

Mr. Putin’s grievance-laden decision, announced last week, to invade Ukraine has inspired widespread resistance in the former Soviet republic and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing their homeland, but many are staying put, turning to whatever weapons are at hand to try to thwart the invaders.

Moscow is also encountering vigorous opposition internationally, and has become increasingly isolated as the United States and its allies vastly expand economic sanctions on Russia and on Mr. Putin’s allies. On Monday, Royal Dutch Shell became the second big oil company in two days to quit partnerships in Russia, a major energy producer, following BP on Sunday.

On Monday, international groups representing sports, culture and entertainment joined in banning or suspending Russian participants.

Even Switzerland, a favored haven of Russian oligarch money, sidelined its customary neutrality and froze assets held by Mr. Putin and his subordinates, further limiting their access to financial resources already squeezed by sanctions announced by President Biden and members of the European Union.

The newly intensified economic penalties sent the Russian currency plunging by almost 25 percent, forced the Russian financial authorities to double interest rates and close the stock market, and sent droves of spooked bank customers in Russia to A.T.M.’s so they could withdraw cash.

And a day after most of European airspace was closed to its flights, Russia responded in kind, barring many foreign airlines.

Outside a branch of Sberbank, a state-owned Russian bank, in Moscow on Monday.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The face-to-face Russian-Ukrainian talks, held by representatives in Belarus, a close partner of Moscow’s, suggested that the Kremlin was feeling the pressure to at least appear amenable to diplomacy, but they ended with no discernible progress.

Even before they began, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who has rejected Russian demands to capitulate, had signaled that he did not expect any diplomatic breakthroughs. As if to punctuate his disdain for Mr. Putin, on Monday he signed a decree requesting Ukraine’s immediate membership in the European Union. Officials in Brussels welcomed that request in principle, though suggested it was unrealistic.

All the while, Russian forces were pursuing their incursion amid signs that they might move to seize or encircle Kyiv, Mr. Zelensky’s base, and to isolate, capture or perhaps even kill the Ukrainian leader whose defiance of the Kremlin has made him a hero to many at home and abroad.

Satellite imagery showed that a large convoy of Russian armed forces, roughly 17 miles long, was about 20 miles north of Antonov Airport, on the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital. Its mayor, Vitali Klitschko, issued a statement advising residents to spend the night from Monday to Tuesday in basements or bomb shelters, if possible. “Tonight will again be difficult,” he wrote.

Part of a Russian convoy on Monday on the outskirts of Kyiv.Credit…Maxar Technologies

A member of the Ukrainian delegation to the talks, Mihailo Podolyak, said negotiators were seeking a cease-fire and an end to hostilities. Both sides, he said afterward, had “identified a number of priority topics in which certain solutions were outlined.”

Vladimir Medinsky, a former Kremlin culture minister who led the Russian delegation, said the negotiators had “found certain points where we can predict common positions,” and that a second meeting in Belarus would be held in the “coming days.”

Mr. Putin, who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse 30 years ago a disaster and has reminded the world twice in the past week that he commands a nuclear-armed state, has framed the Ukraine crisis as a struggle by Russia to protect itself from encroachment and threats by the NATO alliance.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

In a telephone conference on Monday with President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has sought repeatedly to find a diplomatic end to the conflict, Mr. Putin said the Kremlin wants its security demands taken into account “unconditionally,” according to French officials. These include guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Belarus has sought to portray itself as a neutral host for the talks, which were first announced on Sunday, but the country’s authoritarian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, has not only aligned himself with Mr. Putin but also allowed the Russian leader to launch part of the invasion from the Belarus border, which is only 40 miles from Kyiv. There have also been reports that Belarusian troops may join the invasion.

Russian and Belarusian military personnel during joint naval exercises this month.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Both Russia and Belarus were excoriated by Western diplomats on Monday at an emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, which is expected to vote this week on a resolution that would condemn the Russian invasion. While such resolutions have no enforcement power, diplomats said they could help escalate the pressure on Russia to end the war.

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily A. Nebenzya, rejected the criticism, telling fellow ambassadors that the Russian military actions in Ukraine were meant to protect the Donbas, the region in the east where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting for eight years. He accused the United States and its allies of “shamelessly inundating” Ukraine with weapons and inciting Ukrainians to fight.

“The Western countries have created a bubble that could not but pop,” Mr. Nebenzya said.

Later Monday, in a throwback to Cold War-era intrigue, Mr. Nebenzya disclosed to journalists that U.S. officials had ordered the expulsion of 12 diplomats from Russia’s U.N. Mission in New York. “They just visited Russia’s mission and delivered a note to us,” he said.

Mr. Nebenzya called the order a “gross violation” of responsibilities by the United States as host of the 193-member United Nations.

Olivia Dalton, a spokeswoman for the United States Mission, confirmed the expulsion order in a Twitter post, describing the Russian diplomats as “intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission who have abused their privileges of residency in the U.S. by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security.”

The flow of Ukrainian refugees to neighbors since the Russian invasion has created backups at border crossings with Poland and Moldova. The United Nations refugee agency, which reported that 500,000 Ukrainians have fled so far, said it was expecting as many as four million to follow.

At least 36,000 Ukrainians have entered Moldova, a nation of 2.6 million that is among the poorest in Europe. The tiny country is better known for its rapid depopulation, not its appeal to refugees. And yet in recent days, it has been putting Ukrainians up at wineries, schools, a former coronavirus ward and even the home of a lawmaker.

“This is unprecedented, totally unprecedented,” said the lawmaker, Dumitru Alaiba, who was hosting a refugee from Odessa. “It’s magical what we see in terms of solidarity.”

Valerie Hopkins reported from Kyiv, Steven Erlangerfrom Brussels and Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine. Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski from Moscow, Farnaz Fassihi from New York and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.

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