Russian and Ukrainian officials met for talks Monday amid high hopes but low expectations for any diplomatic breakthrough, after Moscow ran into unexpectedly stiff resistance when it unleashed the biggest land war in Europe ince World War II.
Outgunned Ukrainian forces managed to slow the Russian advance and Western sanctions began to squeeze the Russian economy, but the Kremlin again raised the specter of nuclear war, reporting that its land, air and sea nuclear forces were on high alert following President Vladimir Putin’s weekend order.
Stepping up his rhetoric, Putin denounced the U.S. and its allies as an “empire of lies.”
A tense calm reigned in Kyiv, where people lined up to buy food and water after two nights trapped inside by a strict curfew, but social media video from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, showed residential areas being shelled, with apartment buildings shaken by powerful blasts. Authorities in Kharkiv said at least seven people had been killed and dozens injured. They warned that casualties could be far higher.
“They wanted to have a blitzkrieg, but it failed, so they act this way,” said 83-year-old Valentin Petrovich, who described watching the shelling from his downtown apartment. He spoke on condition that his full name not be used, fearing for his security.
The Russian military has denied targeting residential areas despite abundant evidence of shelling of homes, schools and hospitals.
Across the country, terrified 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 port city of Mariupol. Around her, parents sought to console children and keep them warm.
The U.N. human rights chief said at least 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in more than four days of fighting — warning that figure is probably a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead.
More than a half-million people have fled the country since the invasion, another U.N. official said, with many of them going to Poland, Romania and Hungary. And millions have left their homes.