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Ukraine Demands Cease-fire in Russia Talks

Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov, center, and other members of the Ukrainian delegation leave a Belarusian military helicopter upon their landing in the Gomel region, Belarus, Feb. 28, 2022.

Ukraine demanded an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian forces as its delegation arrived Monday for talks with Russia, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the European Union to grant his country immediate membership in the bloc.

Negotiations between Ukraine and Russia began at the Ukraine-Belarus border, with Zelenskyy’s office saying the Ukrainian side included Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

Zelenskyy asked for a fast-track EU accession in a video message in which he also encouraged Russian troops to lay down their arms.

"Our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on an equal footing," he said. "I'm sure it's fair. I'm sure it's possible."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he spoke with the Ukrainian leader by phone and "commended him for the bravery of the people and armed forces of Ukraine."

"NATO allies are stepping up support with air-defense missiles, anti-tank weapons, as well as humanitarian and financial aid," Stoltenberg tweeted.

Russia faced increased diplomatic and economic pressure Monday, the fifth day of its invasion, with the United Nations General Assembly due to hold an emergency session, Russia's currency plunging to a record low and the addition of new sanctions against the country's central bank.

Britain's defense ministry said Monday that Russian troops remained more than 30 kilometers north of Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, adding that "logistical failures and staunch Ukrainian resistance continue to frustrate the Russian advance."

That matched an assessment from a senior U.S. defense official, who told reporters Sunday, "We have no indication that the Russian military has taken control of any city."

Russian troops could soon be joined by forces from ally Belarus, according to U.S. officials who spoke to multiple news organizations.

Among the new sanctions activity Monday, Britain prohibited British entities from conducting transactions with Russia's central bank, finance ministry and wealth fund, while Singapore announced a set of sanctions that include targeting bank transactions and export controls.

A day after the European Union said it was sending fighter jets to Ukraine, Australia on Monday committed to an unspecified delivery of lethal military equipment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that the EU was engaging in hostile behavior toward Russia, and that providing arms to Ukraine was an "extremely dangerous and destabilizing factor."

Peskov also said that while sanctions imposed against Russia are heavy, it has been planning for them and "has the potential to offset the harm."

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden would hold a call with several allies Monday to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine "and to coordinate our united response."

At least 350 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded last week, with another 1,700 wounded, Ukraine said Sunday. There was no information about casualties among Ukrainian forces, and while Russia has acknowledged casualties among its troops, it has not publicly disclosed any count.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.'s human rights chief, told a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council that at least 102 civilians have been killed, and that she feared the real toll is "considerably higher."

"Most of these civilians were killed by explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and airstrikes," Bachelet said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi tweeted Monday that more than 500,000 refugees have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his defense minister to put nuclear forces in a "special regime of combat duty" Sunday, saying that leading NATO powers had made "aggressive statements" and imposed financial sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

Following a vote for a rare special session of the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield responded to Putin's nuclear alert, saying Russia "is under no threat from NATO, a defensive alliance that will not fight in Ukraine. This is another escalatory and unnecessary step that threatens us all. We urge Russia to tone down its dangerous rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons."

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Russia's decision to put its nuclear deterrent on high alert was "unnecessary" and "escalatory."

"We are confident that we have the ability to defend the homeland and defend our allies and partners, and that includes through strategic deterrence," said the official while declining to discuss the United States' nuclear deterrent further.

Russia voted against calling Monday's special session of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly but could not exercise veto power on the procedural vote. China, the United Arab Emirates and India abstained.

Explaining China's abstention, U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said Beijing believes the top priority now is for all parties to exercise the necessary restraint to prevent the situation from getting worse.

"Actions taken by the U.N. should help cool the situation and facilitate diplomatic solutions and restrain from aggravating tensions," Zhang said.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.