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Russia advances on 3 Ukrainian cities, but meets fierce resistance

A Ukrainian soldier walked past debris from a burning military truck on a street in Kyiv on Saturday.Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

KYIV — The Ukrainian military, outmanned and outgunned, waged ferocious, close-range battles on Saturday to maintain control of the capital, Kyiv, and other cities around the country as intense street fighting broke out on the third day of the Russian invasion.

A day after Ukrainian soldiers sought to forestall an attack on the capital by blowing up bridges and setting up armed checkpoints, bursts of gunfire and explosions could be heard across Kyiv, including in its heart, Maidan square, where Ukrainian protests led to the toppling of a pro-Moscow government in 2014.

Russian forces on Saturday were focused on three cities: Kyiv in the north, Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south.

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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video on Saturday that the military, aided by civilians armed with rifles and firebombs, had “withstood and successfully repelled enemy attacks” throughout the country.

“The fighting continues in many cities and districts of our state, but we know what we are protecting: the country, the land, the future of our children,” he said. “Kyiv and key cities around the capital are controlled by our army. The occupiers wanted to block the center of our state and put their puppets here, as in Donetsk. We broke their plan.”

As both sides tried to shape perceptions of how the fighting was going, the Kremlin said Saturday afternoon that the Russian assault on Kyiv was continuing “in accordance with the plan of operation,” as a spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, put it.

Peskov said the campaign had been paused to allow the Ukrainian government to consider peace negotiations, but New York Times reporters in Kyiv heard sustained shelling throughout Friday night. On Saturday morning, a missile struck a civilian apartment block on the southwestern edge of Kyiv, injuring at least six people, according to Ukraine’s emergency services.

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A senior Pentagon official said Saturday that most of the more than 150,000 Russian soldiers who massed on the Ukrainian border in the weeks ahead of the attack were now fighting in the country, but were “increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum” in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance, especially in the north.

Despite their combat power, Russian troops do not yet control any cities, the official said, although they were closing in on Kyiv and other major urban centers. Nor do Russian warplanes fully control Ukraine’s airspace, as Ukrainian fighter jets and air defenses continued to engage them.

Still, the Russian attack from air, land and sea is fast-moving and extremely fluid, and most Western analysts expect the Ukrainian forces to succumb to the larger and more technologically advanced Russian military in the coming days.

The Pentagon’s assessment was echoed by the British Ministry of Defense, which said the speed of the Russian advance had “temporarily slowed likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties and strong Ukrainian resistance.” It said that the overnight clashes in Kyiv probably involved “limited numbers of pre-positioned Russian sabotage groups” and that Russia’s ultimate aim was to capture the capital.

The Ukrainian health minister, Viktor Lyashko, said Saturday that 198 people, among them three children, had been killed since the start of the Russian incursion on Thursday. Another 1,115 people, including 33 children, have been wounded, he said.

As tens of thousands of refugees fled the country, the United States and its European allies scrambled to fortify Ukraine’s forces by sending missiles, medical equipment and helmets.

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Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko declared a curfew starting at 5 p.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. Monday, and warned that any civilians on the street during that period “will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups.”

At the site of a predawn fight with Russian vehicles and possibly infantry, which had been waged along a central thoroughfare, Victory Prospect, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches on Saturday.

Klitschko said that service had been suspended on the subway system, where the stations will serve as round-the-clock shelters. In Kyiv and across Ukraine, people huddled in bomb shelters, lined up at bank machines and stocked up on essentials amid the wail of air raid sirens.

In the port city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, a missile hit a Japanese cargo ship called the Namura Queen late Friday, injuring a crew member and damaging the vessel, the ship’s owner said. The shipping company, Nissen Kaiun, said the vessel had docked in Odessa to load grain and would now head to Turkey.

As Ukraine struggled to hold off the Russian military, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that the United States had authorized another $350 million to support Ukraine’s defense, bringing the total amount of security assistance that the United States has committed to Ukraine over the past year to more than $1 billion.

The package will include Javelin anti-armor missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as small arms and munitions, body armor and other equipment, U.S. officials said. The arms will be drawn from existing Pentagon stockpiles, most likely in Germany, and shipped to Ukraine as soon as possible, probably over land from Poland, given the contested airspace over Ukraine, the officials said.

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The Netherlands said that it would provide 200 Stinger air defense systems. Greece said it would provide thousands of protective medical masks, gloves and suits, as well as defibrillators and portable breathing machines.

And in a turnaround, Germany, which had earlier angered Ukraine by limiting its aid offer to helmets and protective vests, announced Saturday night that it would send 1,000 RPGs and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. Germany also permitted the Dutch to donate 400 German-made RPGs.

Emergency plans to ensure the safety of the Ukrainian president remained a subject of intense discussion among officials Saturday. The Ukraine Embassy in London posted on its Twitter account a statement that Zelenskyy had said in response to what the embassy called “the U.S. evacuation offer”: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskyy said.

As the fighting raged, several nations continued their overtures to Russia and Ukraine to engage in negotiations, but with no tangible signs of progress. Turkey was pursuing a cease-fire as soon as possible to prevent further loss of life and damage to Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey told Zelenskyy in a phone call Saturday, according to Erdogan’s office.

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Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, also called for an end to Russia’s “military operations” in a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Saturday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.

The Biden administration said Friday that Russia had never been serious about finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and that weeks of back-and-forth between Washington and Moscow had been little more than a sham as the Kremlin prepared for war.

“Moscow engaged in the pretense of diplomacy,” the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said at a news conference. “It now appears quite clear that Russia was not, and has not been, interested in genuine diplomacy.”

For Europe, the fighting has created a growing humanitarian crisis, with at least 100,000 Ukrainians entering Poland since Thursday, the Polish government said, and thousands more crossing into Romania and Moldova to escape the forces ripping apart their country.

Ukrainians poured into eastern Poland on Friday, with mothers carrying babies and leading children by the hand across a border crossing at Korczowa, where they were welcomed by Polish volunteers offering food and diapers.

Natalia Khukar, 32, who arrived with her two sons, Maxim, 8, and Oleh, 5, cursed President Vladimir Putin of Russia as she waited by the roadside for a relative to collect the family.

“I have no words to describe what Putin is doing,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “A normal person would never do what Putin has done. He must have gone mad.”

Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca of Romania said that at least 19,000 people from Ukraine had entered his country since the fighting began. About 11,000 have remained in Romania and 40 have applied for asylum, he said.

“I would not have expected to experience such situations again,” Ciuca, a retired general, said in a statement. He denounced the suffering of “people who are plagued by the horrors of a war.”

While thousands have fled the country, others with little or no military training have taken up arms distributed by the Ukrainian government in a frantic bid to bolster the military. Zelenskyy’s government handed out 70,000 AK-47 rifles to citizens on Thursday alone, one aide said, and radio stations were broadcasting instructions for how to make Molotov cocktails.

Arsan, 35, the owner of a coffee shop in Lviv, Ukraine, was among those who volunteered.

Only three days ago, he was going to the gym and getting ready for work when his wife told him the country was at war. On Saturday morning, he was learning to make firebombs and to spot fluorescent missile targets on buildings placed there by the Russians, and joining a brigade of citizens getting ready to fight.

“We can learn to shoot because we don’t know how this situation will develop,” he said.

Asked whether Ukrainian soldiers could hold off the Russian attack on Kyiv, Arsan said that every night was terrible but that he believed they would prevail.

“The Ukrainian army is doing a great job,” he said. “They are super people.”

In Russia, where street protests have been met with force and arrests by the police, Moscow escalated its crackdown on free speech. But hackers found a way to break through. Six government websites were down, according to Ukraine’s state telecommunications agency.

The Kremlin’s communications regulator slowed down access to Facebook and warned 10 Russian independent news outlets that their websites could be blocked. Their offense: publishing articles “in which the operation that is being carried out is called an attack, an invasion or a declaration of war.”

In response, Facebook and Twitter blocked Russian state media from running ads on their platforms.