A Ukrainian delegation will meet with a Russian delegation on Monday for talks on the Ukraine-Belarus border following assurances from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The announcement came Sunday as Ukrainian forces engaged in fierce fighting with Russian troops in multiple cities across Ukraine.
Russia is facing universal condemnation and increased sanctions from Western powers over Moscow’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, now in its fourth day.
Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister Evgeny Yenin said the talks would take place Monday morning local time.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had earlier said he would be willing to hold talks with Russia but not in Belarus, pointing out that Russian military actions are being launched from that country.
On Sunday, Zelensky said in a brief televised statement that he doesn’t expect much from the meeting.
“I will say frankly, as always: 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,” Zelensky said.
Ukraine has said its air force shot down a cruise missile launched at Kyiv on Sunday from Belarus. Belarus is an ally of Russia and has played an important role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Zelensky’s office said Lukashenko had called his Ukrainian counterpart on Sunday. “The politicians have agreed that the Ukrainian delegation will meet with the Russian delegation without preconditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River,” Zelensky’s office said.
“Aleksander Lukashenko has taken responsibility for ensuring that all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on the Belarusian territory will remain on the ground during the Ukrainian delegation’s travel, meeting and return.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s deterrence forces – which include nuclear arms – onto their highest state of alert on Sunday.
“Top officials in leading NATO countries have allowed themselves to make aggressive comments about our country, therefore I hereby order the Minister of Defense and the chief of the General Staff to place the Russian Army Deterrence Force on combat alert,” Putin said in a televised meeting with top Russian defense officials.
Putin also said the Western sanctions placed on Russia were unlawful.
A senior US official told CNN that the new development is Putin’s latest attempt to manufacture threats to justify aggression.
“The only reason his forces face a threat today is because they invaded a sovereign country, and one without nuclear weapons,” said the official. “This is yet another escalatory and totally unnecessary step.”
As the fighting continues, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled their homes and dozens of civilians have been killed, according to UN figures.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a briefing that Putin’s order to put Russian deterrent forces on alert was a “direct threat to us” and an effort to raise pressure on the Ukrainian delegation at Monday’s scheduled talks.
Kuleba indicated that Ukrainian officials are willing to “listen to what Russia has to say” but will not give in to pressure. “We will tell them what we think of this,” he said. “And what we are ready to discuss is how to stop the war and the occupation of our territories. Full stop.”
Kuleba said that, according to Ukrainian intelligence, even people within Putin’s inner circle do not agree with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “because they understand the detrimental, the damaging, the devastating consequences this conflict will have for Russia itself.”
Fighting in Kharkiv, missiles in Kyiv
Earlier Sunday, residents of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, awoke to find the city still firmly under Ukrainian control, despite two massive explosions some 30 kilometers, or about 18 miles, south of the city lighting up the sky overnight.
And fighting broke out on the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, after Russian forces entered the city, Oleh Synehubov, the head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, said Sunday. “Do not leave your shelters!” he posted on Facebook, warning civilians not to go out on the streets.
“Intensive exchanges of rocket artillery overnight have been followed by heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv,” an assessment by the UK’s Ministry of Defence said.
Ukrainian forces had managed to deter the Russians from entering the northeastern city – home to about 1.4 million people – for the past three days. The city, which sits less than 20 miles south of the Russian border, was approached by Russian forces shortly after the invasion began.
But despite being far better equipped, Russia has failed to take control of key cities, as ordinary Ukrainians and reservists join efforts to defend their homes and families.
Others are fleeing the conflict. The United Nations estimates as many as 368,000 Ukrainians are now refugees.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said late Saturday that the United Nations “reports at least 240 civilian casualties, including at least 64 people killed” in the fighting in Ukraine. Damage to civilian infrastructure has deprived hundreds of thousands of people of access to electricity or water, the statement added.
In a video message Sunday, Zelensky accused Russian troops of targeting civilians, including children, and called for an international investigation into the conflict.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has previously said it is targeting only military infrastructure, saying in a statement: “The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation do not strike cities and towns, they take all measures to save the lives of civilians.”
But Zelensky rejected this, saying: “They lied when they said they would not target civilian population. Since the first hours of the invasion, Russian troops have been hitting civilian infrastructure.”
Ukraine is “documenting their crimes,” he said, adding: “This is terror.”