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Ukraine cities face intense shelling as Russian convoy closes in on Kyiv

Zelenskyy said he believed Russia stepped up its shelling to force his hand.

Western officials have said they think Putin’s aim is to remove Zelenskyy’s government and replace it with a Kremlin-friendly regime as part of a move to restore Russia’s influence over its neighbors.

But seeking to tighten his country’s bond with the West, which has backed Kyiv with weapons and equipment while hitting Moscow with fierce sanctions, Zelenskyy signed an application for the country to join the European Union and pleaded with its lawmakers to “prove to us that you are with us,” in a speech on Tuesday.

‘The heart of our country’

In a sign of the battle to come, Zelenskyy said that defending the capital was a priority.

“If we defend Kyiv, we defend the country,” he said in a video message released on Telegram. “Kyiv is the heart of our country, and it must beat. And it will fight for its life to win.”

Satellite images captured by an American firm, Maxar Technologies, showed what it said was a convoy of Russian tanks and armored vehicles 17 miles from the center of the city and stretching for about 40 miles.

Russia’s advance on Ukraine’s capital has made little progress in the past 24 hours due to logistical difficulties, Britain’s defense ministry said Tuesday. Moscow had also increased its use of artillery north of Kyiv and around Kharkiv and Chernihiv, according to the update posted on Twitter.

The key southern port city of Mariupol was under a constant barrage of shelling Tuesday, the city’s mayor said, adding that the attacks had killed women and children as well as damaged infrastructure, including schools and homes.

To the west, shelling hit residential buildings in the strategic city of Kherson, Ukraine’s Security Emergency Services said in a post on social media. Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces have blocked off Kherson, a major port on the Black Sea.

NBC News has not verified the claims.

But U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Putin is growing increasingly frustrated as his purportedly superior military force struggles to advance, and may see his only option as doubling down on violence, current and former U.S. officials briefed on the matter told NBC News.

March 1, 202200:57

The fighting across Ukraine has resulted in around 660,000 people fleeing for neighboring countries since the Russian invasion began, according to figures released Tuesday from the U.N. refugee agency.

The International Criminal Court said in a statement Monday that it will open an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov rejected accusations of war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine in a call with reporters Tuesday.

He also vowed that Western sanctions, which sent the ruble plunging and led Moscow’s central bank to close its stock market, will never get Russia to change its position on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, after Putin raised the specter of nuclear war over the conflict, Russia said that its invasion was driven in part by its assessment that Ukraine’s government was attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

“We cannot ignore this real threat,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday. 

Moscow has offered no evidence to back up the claim.

Ken Dilanian, Anastasiia Parafeniuk, Reuters, Natasha Lebedeva and Mariia Ulianovska contributed.