Russian forces converge on Ukraine’s capital

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Russian ground forces entered the northern district of Kyiv on Friday, as Ukrainian citizens took up arms and braced for a bloody battle. The increasing threat comes as the U.S. issues a fresh warning that Moscow’s ultimate goal is “decapitating the government” and establishing a Russian-backed government in Ukraine’s capital.

Missile strikes showered the capital early Friday and a residential building was destroyed by a Russian rocket. Officials warned Ukrainians to stay inside their homes and prepare Molotov cocktails to defend against advancing forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the Ukrainian military to overthrow Ukraine’s political leadership.

“Take power into your own hands,” Putin said in an opening video statement to a meeting of the Russian Security Council. “It seems that it will be easier for us to come to an agreement than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis, who occupied Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.”

Kyiv, the capital city of 3 million people, is at the center of an offensive by Russian troops, Biden administration officials told U.S. lawmakers on Thursday night, as the war in Ukraine entered its second full day. U.S. officials couldn’t put a timeline on when Kyiv might fall.

The ground forces encircled Kyiv, with battles along the capital's outskirts, even as the Kremlin said it was ready to negotiate with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over his country's neutrality and demilitarization. Moscow’s response comes after Zelenskyy said in a late night video address that his country was “not afraid” to discuss “security guarantees for our country and its neutral status.”

In the pre-dawn hours in Kyiv, large explosions were heard, suspected to be Russian aerial bombardment. Tens of thousands of citizens have fled the capital, snarling traffic on main roads for miles, while others have hunkered down in subway stations for protection against shelling. The ground forces converged on Kyiv in a pincer move, with armored columns approaching from north of the city on either side of the Dnieper River as cruise missiles were launched against the capital overnight.

“It’s already a bloody war,” Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said on “Good Morning Britain” Thursday, adding that he would take up arms to defend his city. “I don’t have another choice. I have to do that. I would fight.”

Zelenskyy, in a late-night address to his nation, said more than 130 Ukrainians died in the first full day of fighting, while the country’s Defense Ministry estimated that 800 Russian troops were lost. In response to Russia’s advances, he ordered a full military mobilization and banned adult men from leaving the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” war in a televised address broadcast early Wednesday morning, Moscow time. A large-scale invasion followed shortly along multiple fronts, with missile bombardment of airports and military facilities across the country and strikes on weapons depots, followed by tanks and heavy armor rolling in from Belarus, Crimea, and from Russian border positions along Ukraine’s northeast.

The British Ministry of Defense said Russia didn’t achieve its first-day military objectives, namely because they met such stiff resistance from Ukrainian fighters. Analysts noted that the Kremlin’s forces struggled in the areas surrounding Kyiv and Kharkiv but had an easier time operating in Ukraine’s east and south.

Ukraine’s Armed Forces said they succeeded in causing high “enemy” losses on the first day of fighting, including destroying 30 tanks, up to 130 armored vehicles, seven aircraft and six helicopters.

A spokesperson for Zelenskyy told POLITICO he intends to stay and direct his government during the invasion. During his Thursday address, Zelenskyy said he sent his family away to an undisclosed location because he’s Russia’s top target. He also claimed that Russian “sabotage groups” had entered the capital.

Earlier Thursday, Russian forces captured the Chernobyl former nuclear power plant, about 80 miles north of the city, and took staff members hostage. Zelenskyy on Thursday morning declared that Russia was on a “path of evil,” one reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and offered to give weapons to any citizens ready to help defend their country.

Russia then attempted to land troops along the Kyiv Reservoir. The battle continued to move closer near Hostomel, less than 6 miles from Kyiv city limits by early evening on Thursday, but Ukrainian officials said it defended against Russian attempts to take the Hostomel airport.

The Russian leader has shown no signs of deescalating. His troops have begun bombarding Kyiv in earnest, likely in advance of a larger ground invasion, even as President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a second, larger sanctions package on Russia, including export blocks on technology, limits on Russia’s ability to finance and grow its military and aerospace sector, and sanctions targeting Russian banks, including VTB, elites and Putin’s inner circle.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News Thursday evening that he’s “convinced” Russia will target Kyiv. The U.S. has indicated the Kremlin could potentially depose Ukraine’s democratically elected government and replace it with a puppet regime.

Biden approved on Thursday an additional 7,000 U.S. troops to be sent to Germany, bringing the total of American forces sent to Europe to 12,000 this month. The president said the troops would not be sent to Ukraine for battle but will be in place to reassure NATO allies.

Putin delivered a clear message to the U.S. and its allies when announcing the invasion, warning foreign governments to not interfere with his operation.

“If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” Putin said. “All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

Alex Ward, Andrew Desiderio and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.