Russia poured more troops into Ukraine and intensified its bombardment of strategic positions around the country after coming up against strong resistance.
Ukrainian forces have succeeded in slowing Russia’s advance into Kyiv but western officials warned of a “long fight” ahead, as Moscow stepped up the biggest military offensive in Europe since 1945.
With a Russian onslaught on Kyiv possible within hours, western capitals rushed forward with promises of military aid to Ukraine and began to prepare heavier financial sanctions against Moscow.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would send weapons directly to Ukraine — a remarkable shift after weeks of saying doing so would contravene a longstanding German policy.
“The Russian invasion marks a turning point. It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in defending against Putin’s invading army,” Scholz wrote on Twitter. “That is why we are supplying 1000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger [anti-aircraft] missiles to our friends in Ukraine.”
Berlin also dropped its opposition to cutting Moscow off from Swift, saying it was now in favour of “targeted” restrictions on Russian access to the global interbank payments system.
Officials in Kyiv said the city remained under government and military control on Saturday, as outgunned troops continued to resist. The mayor’s office ordered a continuous curfew until Monday morning to allow Ukrainian forces to clear Russian “sabotage and reconnaissance groups”.
“We held firm . . . we have withstood and successfully repelled enemy attacks,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Kremlin said its forces advanced after claiming to have paused their assault on Ukraine following an order from Vladimir Putin. The Russian president ordered the attack to resume after Kyiv ignored Moscow’s call for negotiations. A Ukrainian official denied Kyiv had rejected talks.
Russia has increased the use of artillery and long-range missile strikes on Kyiv and other cities as it struggled to make incisive troop gains on Friday night. “This is going to be a long fight,” said one western official.
A missile hit a high-rise apartment block on the outskirts of Kyiv and there were reports of heavy bombardments in other cities. In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, a person contacted by the Financial Times reported intense artillery fire throughout Saturday. The Zelensky administration also said there was fighting in Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa.
Western officials said Russia’s primary objective remained the capture of Kyiv and that its forces did not appear to be trying to seize urban centres, although Moscow said it had taken control of Melitopol in the south.
With thousands of people fleeing the capital, Ukraine’s military called on those who were staying to fight. But western military officials warned that the arrival of tens of thousands of troops advancing south from Belarus, north from Crimea and west from Russia would put intense pressure on Kyiv that could lead to the capital falling within days.
The Pentagon said Russia had deployed about half of the 150,000 combat troops it had amassed along Ukraine’s borders into its territory, up from a third on Friday. Western defence officials said Russian formations were about 30km north of the capital by late afternoon, with smaller numbers of Russian troops closer to the capital.
Kyiv’s troops blew up the railway junctions connecting the Ukrainian railway system with its Russian counterpart on Saturday afternoon, Ukraine’s state-owned railway company said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, claimed that as of Saturday morning, Ukraine had killed more than 3,500 Russians and captured almost 200 more. Oleksiy Arestovych, another adviser to Zelensky, said Russian forces had lost about 14 aircraft including Ilyushin IL-76 transport planes carrying paratroopers, eight helicopters, 102 tanks and 536 armoured personnel carriers.
Russian and Ukrainian military claims cannot be independently verified.
As western powers discussed hitting Russia with heftier sanctions, the US released an additional $350mn to support Ukraine’s military effort. France, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Estonia were among the Nato countries that made fresh pledges of weaponry to Kyiv.
Russian airlines were cut off from an increasing swath of European airspace on Saturday after Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia all announced bans on Russian airlines flying over their countries.
The Baltic states joined the UK, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland in sealing off their skies. Russia has responded with like-for-like bans, and several airlines including British Airways and Aeroflot have begun to make costly diversions on some routes.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin, Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington, Polina Ivanova in Chisinau, and Philip Georgiadis and Adam Samson in London