Putin ready to send negotiation team for talks as Russian troops encircle Kyiv
Moscow/Kyiv, February 25, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to send a delegation to Minsk for talks with Ukraine, the Kremlin said on Friday as its military encircled Kyiv on the second day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moscow Times reported.
Meanwhile, Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, has plunged into chaos after Russian forces launched a military offensive against the country on Thursday.
The negotiations could put an end to Ukraine's NATO ambitions after its President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was willing to discuss Ukraine's "neutrality" -- a demand of Putin's -- in his latest attempt to appeal to the Russian leader to negotiate. The Kremlin said it took note of Zelensky's offer.
China's Foreign Ministry has also said that Putin told Chinese leader Xi Jinping over phone that "Russia is ready for high-level talks with Ukraine".
"Vladimir Putin is ready to send a Russian delegation to Minsk in response to Zelensky's proposal," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, Moscow Times reported.
The delegation would comprise Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Presidential Administration officials, Interfax quoted him as saying.
Peskov added that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Russian ally, welcomed the opportunity to host the Russia-Ukraine talks.
Minsk was previously the site of negotiations for an eastern Ukraine ceasefire in 2014 and 2015. Belarus is currently hosting thousands of Russian troops on its territory after joint military exercises ended on February 20.
The Kremlin spokesman reiterated Putin's stated goal of invading Ukraine to "help" eastern Ukraine's pro-Moscow breakaway republics "including through the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine".
"This, in fact, is an integral component of [Ukraine's] neutral status," Peskov told reporters.
Putin recognised the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics as independent and mounted the military campaign against Ukraine after they requested his military assistance this week.
Donetsk and Luhansk foreign ministers arrived in Moscow earlier on Friday to formally establish diplomatic relations, the report said.
In Kyiv, terrified people have been queuing for hours to get fuel, food and medicine.
Many left Kyiv to seek shelter in western Ukraine, building up kilometres-long traffic jams, Xinhua news agency reported.
Meanwhile, chilling videos showed Russian helicopter gunships sweeping over Ukraine to attack an airport just miles from Kyiv, The Sun reported.
Russian choppers can be seen hurtling over the landscape as they attacked the military base at Gostomel airport, the report said.
Ukrainian officials said they managed to down at least three of the aircraft -- but the Russians had managed to seize control of the area.
Kyiv's presidential office said there was "fierce fighting" at the airport.
In some of most dramatic footage of the invasion so far, the helicopters are seen flying low and appearing to be firing flares as they moved in, The Sun reported.
Smoke is seen rising in the background from the devastated landscape amid the bloodshed which has plunged Europe into a new crisis.
The craft are believed to be a mix of Ka-52 Alligators, Mi-8s and Mi-24 military attack helicopters.
Elsewhere, fighter planes were seen flying low over Kyiv -- while a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane was shot down, killing 5 people, the report added.
Russia launched a full scale invasion as they assaulted 25 cities, destroyed 75 military installations and 11 air bases.
Troops and tanks surged across the border -- many of them emblazoned with the now infamous "Z" symbol -- sparking bloody firefights, the report said.
Russia has nearly 200,000 soldiers ready to move in -- encircling the north, south and east of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Putin suggested on Friday that it would be "easier" to negotiate with the Ukrainian Army than with politicians in Kyiv.
Ukraine's armed forces should "take power" in the country and negotiate peace with Moscow, Putin said during a Russian Security Council meeting on Friday, RT reported.
He also accused the Kyiv government and "neo-Nazis" of using civilians as "human shields" amid Russia's offensive in Ukraine.
Putin said the Ukrainian military must not allow the government to use their "children, wives and loved ones as human shields" – tactics he insisted Kyiv is using during Moscow's military operation, the report said.
"Take the power into your own hands!" the Russian President said, arguing that the army would be a better negotiating partner than "a bunch of drug-addicts and neo-Nazis" who he claimed have "entrenched themselves in Kyiv", and have been holding the people "hostage", RT reported.
"Also, I would like to commend the efficiency of Russian armed forces, they have been acting honourably, heroically and they are effective and efficient at protecting the Russian people and their homeland," Putin said, a day after authorising a military operation in Ukraine.
The sound of gunfire has echoed through Ukraine's capital Kyiv as Russian tanks were filmed entering the city for the first time, BBC reported.
Ukraine's Ministry of Defence called on those living in the northern outskirts, where the tanks were seen, to make fire bombs "to neutralise the enemy".
The European Union has announced new sanctions to freeze Vladimir Putin's personal assets in Europe, BBC reported.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, says that Russia is ready for talks with Ukraine.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said talks would have to be about Ukraine declaring a "neutral status" - which would include "demilitarisation". Russia wants Ukraine to rule out ever joining Nato.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly called for talks with Putin, but has given no sign that he would agree to talks on the basis of "demilitarisation".
Overnight, Kyiv was hit by blasts, with at least one block of flats damaged and several civilians injured. Russia has denied carrying out strikes, BBC reported.
As the second day of fighting began, Moscow - which was attacking from the east, north and south - appeared to have Kyiv firmly in its sights. Mayor Vitali Klitschko said "the enemy" was trying to put Kyiv "on its knees", the report said.
On Friday afternoon, Russia's Defence Ministry announced that it had captured the Antonov airport, using 200 helicopters and a landing force in order to take the base to the north of Kyiv from Ukraine. Western intelligence officials warned earlier that Russia was building an "overwhelming force" to take control of the city.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian citizens flooded the country's ATMs in an attempt to withdraw their money as the military conflict with Russia intensified. Russians have also been queuing at the banks, RT reported.
Long queues of people trying to withdraw cash have led to fears of bank runs. Images taken in Ukraine capital Kyiv and other major cities showed long lines forming at ATMs after the central bank, the NBU, enacted a temporary cash withdrawal limit of 100,000 Ukrainian hryvnia per day (about $3,353).
On Friday, the head of the NBU said that the flow of cash into ATMs would not be limited, and non-cash payments are also not subject to restrictions.
The regulator, however, has prohibited the country's banks from making any foreign exchange transactions using Russian and Belarusian rubles. It has also banned operations on the accounts of Russian residents and introduced a moratorium on cross-border currency payments, the report said.
In Russia, people have also been seen queuing outside of ATMs. Data by the Russian central bank showed that demand from the population and businesses for cash has jumped to its highest levels since March 2020, RT reported.
On Thursday, Russians withdrew more than 100 billion rubles (over $1 billion) from their accounts. However, that amount is 1.5 times lower than during the surge in currency withdrawals at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Russian regulator has announced an emergency support package, saying it will ensure the maintenance of fiscal stability and the business continuity of financial institutions by using all necessary tools. The central bank assured that the country's credit organisations have a clear plan of action for any scenario.
Ukraine has made claims that Russian forces have attacked orphanages and nurseries in the country, Sky News reported.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter (which has been translated into English): "Today's Russian attacks on kindergartens and orphanages are war crimes and violations of the Rome Statute."
"Together with the Office of the Attorney General, we are collecting these and other materials, which we will immediately transfer to The Hague. Responsibility is inevitable," Sky News reported.
A reporter on the ground has also claimed to have images from the alleged attack on a kindergarten - which was being used at the time as a shelter.
The European Union will freeze bank accounts of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the bloc but will not issue a travel ban, Austria's foreign minister has announced, Sky News reported.
Alexander Schallenberg said: "There will be no travel ban against them, though, because we want to retain the possibility of negotiations in order to end the violence in Ukraine."
He made the comments as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, confirming an earlier report in the FT.