Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian and Ukrainian forces clashed in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday as authorities urged citizens to help defend the city from advancing Russian forces in the worst European security crisis in decades.
The Associated Press reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected an offer to be evacuated from the U.S. government. Zelenskyy's reply, according to a senior American intelligence official: "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride."
But even as the fighting grew more intense, the Russian and Ukrainian governments signaled an openness to negotiations, offering the first glimmer of hope for diplomacy since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Thursday.
Heavy, frequent artillery fire and intense gunfire, apparently some distance from the city center, could be heard, a Reuters witness in Kyiv said. The Ukrainian military said Russian troops attacked an army base on a main avenue but the assault was repelled.
Gunfire was heard after dawn near government buildings in the city center, a Reuters witness said.
"The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now," Zelenskyy said on Friday in a video address posted to his Telegram channel.
The air force command reported heavy fighting near an air base at Vasylkiv southwest of the capital, which it said was under attack from Russian paratroopers.
It also said one of its fighters had shot down a Russian transport plane. Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
Kyiv residents were told by the defense ministry to make petrol bombs to repel the invaders.
Tonight, they will launch an assault. ... The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now.
–Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Some families cowered in shelters afraid of more Russian missiles. Hundreds of thousands who have left their homes to find safety, according to the United Nations' aid chief.
As dawn broke, media reported air raid sirens in several cities.
After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin unleashed a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine from the north, east and south on Thursday, in an attack that threatened to upend Europe's post-Cold War order.
"I once again appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine: do not allow neo-Nazis and (Ukrainian radical nationalists) to use your children, wives and elders as human shields," Putin said at a televised meeting with Russia's Security Council on Friday. "Take power into your own hands."
Putin has cited the need to "denazify" Ukraine's leadership as one of his main reasons for invasion, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss the accusations as baseless propaganda.
Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and Kyiv hopes to join NATO and the E.U. — aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Putin says Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their more than thousand-year history.
'Ready to talk'
Western countries have announced a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports. But they have stopped short of forcing it out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments.
The United States imposed sanctions on Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The European Union and Britain earlier froze any assets Putin and Lavrov held in their territory. Canada took similar steps.
The invasion triggered a flurry of credit rating moves on Friday, with S&P lowering Russia's rating to "junk" status, Moody's putting it on review for a downgrade to junk, and S&P and Fitch swiftly cutting Ukraine on default worries.
However, the looming economic costs has not deterred Putin.
Moscow said on Friday it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital — a possible staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war.
This could not be confirmed and Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.
But amid the chaos of war came a ray of hope.
A spokesman for Zelenskyy said Ukraine and Russia would consult in coming hours on a time and place for talks.
The Kremlin said earlier it offered to meet in the Belarusian capital Minsk after Ukraine expressed a willingness to discuss declaring itself a neutral country while Ukraine had proposed Warsaw as the venue. That, according to Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov, resulted in a "pause" in contacts.
"Ukraine was and remains ready to talk about a ceasefire and peace," Zelenskyy's spokesman, Sergii Nykyforov, said in a Facebook post. "We agreed to the proposal of the President of the Russian Federation."
But U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Russia's offer was an attempt to conduct diplomacy "at the barrel of a gun" and that Putin's military must stop bombing Ukraine if it was serious about negotiations.
At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that would have deplored its invasion, while China abstained, which Western countries took as proof of Russia's isolation. The United Arab Emirates and India also abstained while the remaining 11 members voted in favor.
A picture of what was happening on the ground across Ukraine — the largest country in Europe after Russia — was slow to emerge.
Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that there had been heavy fighting with deaths at the entrance to the eastern cities of Chernihiv and Melitopol, as well as at Hostomel.
Witnesses said they had heard explosions and gunfire near the airport in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city. Ukraine's military said Russian troops had been stopped with heavy losses near the northeastern city of Konotop.
There were also have reports of fighting near an air base southwest of Kyiv.
Ukraine said more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed. Russia did not release casualty figures. Zelenskyy said late on Thursday that 137 soldiers and civilians had been killed with hundreds wounded.
The White House asked Congress for $6.4 billion in security and humanitarian aid for the crisis, officials said, and Biden instructed the U.S. State Department to release $350 million in military aid.
Contributing: Aleksandar Vasovi, Alan Charlish, Fedja Grulovic, Natalia Zinets