Russia ramps up war efforts in Ukraine as talks begin at Belarus border

Originally Published: 28 FEB 22 02:52 ET
Updated: 28 FEB 22 07:36 ET

    (CNN) -- A miles-long convoy of Russian military vehicles is bearing down on the Ukrainian capital, new satellite imagery shows, as Moscow continues to ramp up its assault on Kyiv despite talks on Monday with Ukrainian representatives near the border with Belarus.

Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has entered into its fifth day, with its troops facing determined resistance across the country, frustrating Moscow's efforts to swiftly take control of key cities.

Talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials, which mark the two sides' first public contact since the war began, got underway at 1 p.m. local (6 a.m. ET). Ukraine has demanded an "immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops," President Volodymyr Zelensky's office said earlier Monday.

Zelensky has downplayed the significance of the talks, which he is not attending in person. "I do not really believe in the result of this meeting, but let them try, so that no citizen of Ukraine would have any doubt that I, as president, did not try to stop the war when there was even a small chance," he said Sunday,

But while Ukrainians have attached little hope in the talks yielding a pathway to peace, the opportunities to deescalate the conflict appear to be quickly shrinking.

As NATO allies pledged increased weaponry and assistance to embattled Ukrainian forces and international sanctions on Russia begin to tighten, Putin on Sunday raised the stakes by ordering his country's nuclear forces to be placed on high alert.

Later on Sunday, Belarus renounced its non-nuclear status in a referendum, after the former Soviet nation became a launch pad for Russia's invasion in Ukraine last week.

The vote in favor of a new constitution could theoretically allow Russia to place nuclear weapons back in Belarus for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Belarus gave up its stockpile and became a nuclear free zone.

Addressing journalists at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said he could ask Putin to "return the nuclear weapons" Belarus gave away if the West transfers any nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania.

Ukrainian intelligence also indicated Belarus could be preparing to "participate directly" in the invasion of Ukraine, according to two sources close to the Ukrainian government. Lukashenko said last week that Belarusian troops could join the invasion "if it becomes necessary."

So far, despite being larger and far better equipped, Russia's military has been unable to convert its numerical superiority into territorial gains, as ordinary Ukrainians and reservists join efforts to defend their families and homes.

Ukraine said its air force shot down a cruise missile launched at the city from Belarus Sunday, and claimed a successful drone attack against against a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system near the capital.

But Western military assessments caution that Ukrainian forces cannot holdout indefinitely. On Sunday, new satellite images released by Maxar Technologies showed a Russian military convoy stretching at least three miles long on a road heading towards the Ukrainian capital. Maxar identified fuel, logistical trucks, tanks, infantry vehicles and self-propelled artillery moving in the convoy.

On Monday, it appeared the the bulk of Russian ground forces were more than more than 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) north of Kyiv, according to an intelligence update by the the UK's Ministry of Defense. The advance of those troops was slowed by stiff Ukrainian resistance at the nearby Hostomel airfield, "a key Russian objective for day one of the conflict," the ministry said.

The Russian military announced what it described as an "open and safe" corridor for civilians to leave the capital on Monday, while repeating a baseless claim that the Ukrainian government was using residents as a "human shield."

And while Ukrainian troops appear to be holding ground in the country's north, Russian forces have made some advances to the south. On Sunday Russian troops took control of Berdyansk -- a port city of 100,000 people on Ukraine's southern coast, and the site of a small naval base.

The ongoing Russian assault has inflicted widespread suffering and casualties on the Ukrainian population, forcing at least 368,000 people to flee the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The number of known civilians killed in Ukraine stands at 352, with 14 of those children, Ukraine's Ministry of Interior said Sunday.

Ukrain'e General Staff of the Armed Forces accused Russia of hitting civilian areas. "In violation of the norms of international humanitarian law, the occupiers have insidiously inflicted missile strikes on residential buildings in Zhytomir and Chernyhiv," a statement said on Monday.

CNN is unable to independently verify these claims.

Russian Central Bank raises interest rates

The Russian currency, the ruble, plunged nearly 30% on Monday, as markets began to assess the impact of sanctions imposed by the US and NATO allies.

The Moscow stock exchange was not opened on Monday, the Russian central bank said in a statement. The bank earlier announced that it would raise its key interest rate from 9.5% to 20%, warning that "external conditions for the Russian economy have drastically changed."

As Moscow scrambled to prevent a meltdown of its economy, analysts warned that the turmoil could lead to a run on Russian banks, as savers try to secure their deposits and hoard cash.

It comes after unprecedented sanctions on Russia by the US, European Union, UK and Canada, which agreed over the weekend to expel some Russian banks from SWIFT, a global financial messaging service, and "paralyze" the assets of Russia's central bank.

From the removal of Russian liquor and other products from shelves around the US and Canada, to several European countries refusing to play Russia in international football matches, support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion is growing.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview Sunday the bloc wanted Ukraine to join: "They're one of us," she said. Ukraine is not an official candidate for EU accession and joining is a complex and lengthy process.

The EU threw its support behind the country, committing for the first time in its history to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and equipment to a country under attack. That includes $450 million to provide arms and lethal assistance to Ukraine and $50 million in non-lethal assistance, top diplomat Josep Borell said.

Russia's invasion and aviation bans are creating huge no-go areas in the sky, with the EU the latest to close its airspace to Russian planes, including the private jets of oligarchs, following similar moves by the Canada and the UK.

Meanwhile, the UK said it will provide an additional $53 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine and British leaders plan to introduce legislation in Parliament aimed at clamping down on Russian money laundering and fraud.

And Australian travel bans and targeted financial sanctions against Putin and senior members of his government went into effect Monday, the country's Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed in a statement.

South Korea and Singapore on Monday also announced new sanctions on Russia

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