© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Russian paratroopers run toward aircrafts during an operation said to take control of an airfield, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at an unknown location, in Ukraine, in this still image taken from a video released by Russian Defense Min
By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Three European prime ministers were traveling to Kyiv on Tuesday, the first foreign leaders to visit the Ukrainian capital since Russia launched its invasion in a striking symbol of Ukraine’s success so far in fending off Russia’s assault.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki announced plans for the visit, saying they and Slovenia’s Janez Jansa would meet Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Zelenskiy’s office confirmed the plans.
“The purpose of the visit is to confirm the unequivocal support of the entire European Union for the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” Fiala said, adding the three leaders would present a broad support package for Ukraine.
Morawiecki’s aide, Michal Dwoczyk, told reporters the delegation had crossed the Polish-Ukraine border and was heading to Kyiv by train, in what the Polish leader said was a historic mission.
“It is our duty to be where history is forged. Because it’s not about us, but about the future of our children who deserve to live in a world free from tyranny,” Morawiecki said.
The three leaders will arrive in a city that is still under bombardment, where around half of the 3.4 million population has fled and many are spending nights sheltering in underground stations. Two powerful explosions rocked the capital before dawn on Tuesday, and emergency services said two people died when an apartment building was struck.
Nearly three weeks into a war which Western countries say Moscow believed it would win within days, Europe’s biggest invasion force since World War Two has been halted at the gates of Kyiv, with major road and train routes from the capital still open. Huge armored columns of Russian forces have failed to capture any of Ukraine’s 10 biggest cities, despite bombardment that has reduced some residential areas to rubble.
Hosting foreign dignitaries in his own capital would be a remarkable symbolic success for Zelenskiy, who rejected offers to evacuate early in the war, staying under bombardment to rally his nation with nightly messages from inside the city.
In his most confident public statement yet, Zelenskiy called on Russian forces to surrender, saying they and their officers already knew that the war was hopeless.
“Russian conscripts! Listen to me very carefully. Russian officers! You’ve already understood everything: You will not take anything from Ukraine. You will take lives. There are a lot of you. But your life will also be taken. But why should you die? What for? I know that you want to survive, ”he said.
One of Zelenskiy’s top aides said the war would be over by May – and could even end within weeks – as Russia had effectively run out of fresh troops to keep fighting.
“We are at a fork in the road now: there will either be a peace deal struck very quickly, within a week or two, with troop withdrawal and everything, or there will be an attempt to scrape together some, say, Syrians for a round two and, when we grind them too, an agreement by mid-April or late April, “Oleksiy Arestovich said in a video.
“I think that no later than in May, early May, we should have a peace agreement, maybe much earlier: we will see,” Arestovich said.
The remarks projected a new-found confidence that Ukraine’s heavily outnumbered forces have made it impossible for Russia to achieve what Western countries believe was Moscow’s aim – to install in Kyiv pro-Russian leaders.
Russia says it is not targeting civilians and is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine, which Kyiv and its allies call a baseless pretext to invade a democratic nation of 44 million people.
In the city of Rivne in western Ukraine, hundreds of miles from the combat zone, Ukrainian officials said 19 people had been killed in a Russian air strike on a television tower. If confirmed, that would be by far the worst attack so far on a civilian target in the northwestern half of the country.
Ukrainian and Russian delegations were due to resume peace talks later on Tuesday by video link.
So far no progress has been announced at those talks, which have focused on allowing civilians to evacuate and bring aid to surrounded cities, especially the eastern port of Mariupol. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed there since Russia laid siege to the city of 400,000 in the war’s first week. Russian troops permitted a first column of cars to leave the city on Monday but attempts to enact a local ceasefire to bring in aid convoys have failed for 10 straight days. Ukrainian officials said they would try again on Tuesday.
While armored columns bearing down on Kyiv appear to have been halted at the city’s outskirts, Russian forces have had more success in the south, capturing several small cities near the Black and Azov sea coasts.
In an intelligence update on Tuesday, Britain’s ministry of defense reported demonstrations against Russian occupation in the cities of Kherson, Berdyansk and Melitopol, with Russian troops firing warning shots to disperse crowds in Kherson. Russian forces were reported to have abducted the mayors of Melitopol and Dniprorudne, it said.
The war has brought economic isolation upon Russia never before visited on such a large economy. In Russia itself, it has been accompanied by a near total crackdown on free speech, with all major independent media shut down and Western social media apps switched off. Reporting that refers to “war” or “invasion” is banned.
In a rare anti-war protest during the main news program on the main state TV channel, an employee stood behind the anchor and held up a sign in English and Russian that said: “NO WAR. Stop the war. Do not believe propaganda “They are lying to you here.” She was quickly arrested.
The United Nations says more than 2.8 million people have now left Ukraine since the start of the war.
“I am fleeing with my child because I want my child to stay alive,” said a Ukrainian woman named Tanya who said she traveled from the town of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine across the Danube river to Romania. “Because the people that are there now are Russians, Russian soldiers, and they kill children.”