Russia and Ukraine to hold talks as troops edge closer to Kyiv
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Russia and Ukraine were set for a third round of talks Monday as Moscow's invading forces maintain their devastating assaults across the former Soviet state.
The discussions come as Russian troops edge closer to Kyiv and keep up their relentless bombardment of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, where nearly 2,200 people have been killed in the onslaught, according to local officials.
Ukrainian and Russian representatives will meet via videoconference Monday, a Ukrainian presidential adviser and a Kremlin spokesman both said.
According to Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia, the talks will begin at 0820 GMT.
"And our goal is that in this struggle, in this difficult negotiating work, Ukraine will get the necessary result... for peace and for security," President Volodymyr Zelensky said early Monday, adding that both sides speak every day.
He said the aim was "to do everything to ensure a meeting of presidents. A meeting that I am sure people are waiting for."
"We see significant progress," Leonid Slutsky, a senior member of Russia's negotiating team, told state-run television network RT Sunday.
Talks between Kyiv and Moscow have yet to yield a ceasefire and Russian forces have shown no sign of easing their onslaught.
In an attack dangerously close to NATO member Poland, Russian airstrikes Sunday on a Ukrainian military training ground near the border killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 130.
Zelensky on Monday renewed his call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone following the attack near the western city of Lviv.
"If you do not close our sky, it is only a matter of time before Russian missiles fall on your territory, on NATO territory, on the homes of NATO citizens," Zelensky said in a video address.
Washington and its EU allies have sent funds and military aid to Ukraine and imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. But the United States has ruled out any direct intervention, with President Joe Biden warning that NATO fighting Russia "is World War III".
Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron Sunday and the two leaders "underscored their commitment to hold Russia accountable for its actions and support the government and people of Ukraine," the White House said.
Black Sea blockade
In its latest intelligence update Sunday, Britain's defence ministry said Russia had established a naval blockade on the Black Sea coast, "effectively isolating Ukraine from international maritime trade".
"Russian naval forces are also continuing to conduct missile strikes against targets throughout Ukraine," it said.
But in a sign Moscow may have underestimated the challenge it would face, US officials told media Russia had asked China for military and economic aid for the war.
Moscow also asked Beijing for economic assistance against the crippling sanctions imposed against it, the New York Times said, citing anonymous officials.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington told multiple outlets "I've never heard of that" when asked about the alleged requests.
The reports came hours after the White House said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan would meet top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome on Monday.
US diplomat Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly asking for military help could be a "defining moment" for China's Xi Jinping.
"To do so means China would open itself to substantial sanctions and make itself a pariah; to refuse would keep open the possibility of at least selective cooperation with US and West," he tweeted.
Beijing has declined to directly condemn Moscow's invasion and has repeatedly blamed NATO's "eastward expansion" for worsening tensions between Russia and Ukraine, echoing the Kremlin's prime security grievance.
The latest fighting in Kyiv's suburbs left a US journalist dead -- the first foreign reporter killed since Russia's invasion on February 24.
Award-winning video documentary maker Brent Renaud, was shot dead, and an American photojournalist with him, Juan Arredondo, was wounded Sunday in Irpin, medics and witnesses said.
'No honour, no mercy'
Meanwhile, efforts continued to get help to the devastated southern city of Mariupol, which aid agencies say is facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
A humanitarian column headed there had to turn back again on Sunday, a city official told AFP, after the Russians "did not stop firing." It is expected to try again on Monday.
A total of 2,187 residents have now died in days of relentless Russian bombardment, the city council said Sunday.
"The enemy is holding the city hostage by performing real acts of genocide," said Ukraine Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
Zelensky has accused Moscow of both blocking and attacking humanitarian convoys, although he said Sunday that another 125,000 people had been evacuated that way across Ukraine.
"Russians are bombing the city even during official negotiations," Reznikov said. "They have no dignity, no honour, no mercy."
Russia's forces had earlier focused on eastern and southern areas of Ukraine -- home to more ethnic Russians -- but in recent days have moved to the country's centre, striking the city of Dnipro, and now to the west with the attack at a military base near Poland, which had been a training centre for Ukrainian forces with foreign instructors.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told ABC that Russia was "clearly, at least from an airstrike perspective... broadening their target sets".
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, only the roads to the south remain open, according to the Ukrainian presidency. City authorities have set up checkpoints, and people are stockpiling food and medicine, fearing coming under siege.
The northwestern suburb of Bucha is entirely held by Russian forces, along with parts of Irpin, Ukrainian soldiers told AFP. Some blocks in the once well-to-do suburb have been reduced to rubble.
'Stop this massacre!'
Britain's defence ministry said Saturday that Russian forces were about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Kyiv and that a column north of the city had dispersed as part of an apparent attempt to encircle it.
However, the Russians are encountering resistance from the Ukrainian army to both the east and west of the capital, according to AFP journalists on the scene.
"Russia is paying a high price for each advance as the Ukrainian Armed Forces continue to offer staunch resistance across the country," Britain's defence ministry said in its intelligence update.
The UN estimates almost 2.7 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, most of them to Poland, which is struggling to provide for the arrivals.
Pope Francis on Sunday issued an impassioned plea to the Russians, saying, "In the name of God, I ask you, stop this massacre!"
Zelensky says the Russians have suffered "heavy losses" of about 12,000 troops -- although Moscow put the number at 498, in its only toll released March 2.
About 1,300 Ukrainian troops have been killed, according to Kyiv.
In the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, Russian troops fired warning shots after thousands of locals gathered to protest against the invasion, local media said.
The Ukrainian president -- who has maintained an extraordinarily high profile through the conflict -- visited wounded soldiers at a hospital outside Kyiv, which was shown in a video released Sunday.
"Feel better, stay strong," a visibly moved Zelensky told them. "You are doing a great job."