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Ukraine’s leader defiant as Kyiv holds firm against Russian attacks

There was fighting on the streets of the Ukrainian capital city Kyiv and in other big cites across the country Saturday, but a United States defense official and others watching the unfolding tragedy said the massive Russian assault appeared to be stymied by the stiffer-than-expected resistance.

The Ukrainian government in Kyiv was still directing the counter-attack against the Russians after a night of explosions rocked the ancient city of 3 million.

Latest updates on Ukraine:

  • After fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces kept Russian troops out of Kyiv for another day.
  • While some citizens huddled underground, others took to the street to repel the Russians.
  • The Russian military was less than 20 miles from the capital.
  • The U.S. is sending another $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine.
  • Germany is taking the surprise step of sending missiles and anti-tank defense system to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and other allies like Germany were speeding badly needed weaponry and supplies to the outgunned Ukrainians, who were refusing to surrender.

Also, the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, which is one of Russia’s closest allies, surprised Moscow-watchers by announcing that it will deny Putin’s request for Kazakh troops to help subjugate Ukraine.

Kazakhstan also said it would not join Putin in recognizing the breakaway pro-Russian Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine.

“We have withstood and successfully repelled enemy attacks,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a speech Saturday morning to his countrymen. “The fighting continues in many cities and districts of our state, but we know that we are protecting the country, the land, the future of children.”

As Zelenskyy spoke, Russian forces were less than 20 miles away from Kyiv but struggling to pierce the outer ring of the city’s defenses, the U.S. official said.

Some of the heaviest fighting has been reported in and around the city of Kharkiv, the official said. And the Ukrainian Air Force was still challenging the Russians in the sky despite being barraged by some 250 short-range missile strikes.

Zelenskyy and his government have refused to leave the capital, though the Ukrainian president has said he believes he is the number-one target of the Russian attack. Instead, he has been posting videos from the streets, urging his people to join him in defiance.

The U.S. defense official declined to comment on reports that Zelenskyy rebuffed a U.S. offer to evacuate him from the country.

One of Zelenskyy’s presidential predecessors was also staying in Kyiv to defend his homeland.

“Today in Kyiv, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will meet hell, and the Russian people and the Russian soldiers who come here to kill Ukrainians will pay the big price,” former president Petro Poroshenko told Sky News.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s unprovoked attack on its democratic neighbor has drawn widespread condemnation and turned Putin into an international pariah.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled the Russian advance, mostly to neighboring Poland and Romania.

Those who stayed were enduring an assault that Ukraine and international watchdogs said was increasingly hitting civilians.

The Russian attack has upended the West’s sense of security, especially in countries on NATO’s eastern flank with a long history of battling Moscow, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

NATO has moved to reinforce its eastern flank and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday authorized an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine.

“Today, as Ukraine fights with courage and pride against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked assault, I have authorized, pursuant to a delegation by the President, an unprecedented third Presidential Drawdown of up to $350 million for immediate support to Ukraine’s defense,” Blinken said in a statement.

Feb. 26, 202200:42

Germany, which has been criticized for being slow to condemn the Russian invasion and for being reluctant to impose sanctions on Moscow, announced Saturday that it was sending the Ukrainians 500 ground-to-air “Stinger” missiles and 1,000 tank defense weapons.

“The Russian raid on Ukraine marks a turning point,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement. “It threatens our entire post-war order. In this situation, it is our duty to support Ukraine.”

Military experts said Russia still has the overwhelming advantage, but it’s not clear it has enough of an advantage to take over a Texas-sized country with 43 million people that has already found the weak spots in the Russian offensive.

“I just don’t believe that they have the capability, especially the further they go from Russian sovereign territory and from Belarus, that they will be able to maintain this,” retired Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general, United States Army Europe and Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said on MSNBC.

“And I think these convoys of big fuel trucks, for example, that have to follow the tanks — these things, they are very vulnerable, and I think we’re going to see more and more reports of these convoys being hit.”

Overnight, many Kyiv residents huddled in underground shelters and subway stations while officials imposed a strict curfew to root out the “enemy.” Armed with government-issued machine guns and homemade Molotov cocktails, Ukranian civilians were helping to reinforce their army’s desperate but for now effective resistance against Putin’s invasion.

Zelenskyy said that Russia wanted to capture the city and install its own “puppets” to run Ukraine. His warnings have been echoed by Western officials who say Putin intends to decapitate Ukraine’s pro-western government and possibly replace it with a Moscow-friendly regime.

In a video posted to social media earlier Saturday, Zelenskyy stood on a Kyiv street and rejected what he said was Russian disinformation that he had told his forces to surrender.

“We won’t put down our weapons,” Zelenskyy said. “We will protect our country because our weapon is our truth and it is our land, our country, our children and we will defend all of it.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that Russian forces paused their advance Friday to offer negotiations to Ukraine — whose government Putin described as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” repeating propaganda Russia uses to justify its actions.

Peskov said that Kyiv refused the offer, so the Russian attack had resumed Saturday afternoon.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, rejected that suggestion and said Ukraine had not refused to negotiate but would not do so under unacceptable conditions.

Zelenskyy had warned that the night would bring “a full-scale storm.” But as day broke Saturday the capital city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, reported that despite a difficult night the “aggressor was neutralized” and there were no regular Russian troops in Kyiv.

“The enemy is trying to break into the city,” Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, said in a video message posted online.

He also extended to Monday a curfew between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. local time, warning that anyone seen on the streets during that time would be considered an enemy combatant, due to the presence of Russian sabotage and reconnaissance teams.