The idea of talks appeared to go nowhere, after Putin aide Dmitry Peskov conveyed the offer for a gathering in Belarus — one of several jumping-off points for Russian troops — before saying that Ukraine had turned it aside. Russian troops are “at point-blank range to the capital,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Friday evening. “The next night, closer to the morning, will be very difficult.”
With the war in its second day, the U.S. was poised to impose sanctions on Putin himself. The Russian president said earlier he’s ready to authorize negotiations with Ukraine about the country adopting a “neutral” status.
Putin says he invaded Ukraine to stop it from getting closer to NATO, the Western military alliance, and to force it to “demilitarize.” While President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also called for negotiations, there was no indication of Ukraine acceding to Russian demands to surrender.
The U.S. and the European Union increased pressure on the Kremlin with a coordinated set of sanctions overnight aimed at inflicting a heavy toll on the Russian economy. The goal, said French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, is “to financially isolate Russia.” Zelenskiy and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed strengthening sanctions and “concrete defense assistance” in a call on Friday, according to the Ukrainian president.
The U.S. also plans to sanction Putin over the invasion of Ukraine. While largely symbolic, it’s a politically significant slap to a leader because it puts him effectively in the same category as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The European Union moved on Friday to freeze the assets of Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the U.K. said it planned a similar measure.
There was no sign of a letup in the fighting. Kyiv’s defenders set up positions at bridges over the Dnieper river that bisects the capital. Sirens wailed throughout the day, sending residents into shelters, while Ukraine’s armed forces said their units were engaging Russian armor to the north.
Russian markets shrugged off the moves after President Joe Biden and EU leaders shied away from the most drastic action, stopping short of barring Russia from the SWIFT international banking network and allowing exemptions for energy exports.
They were further buoyed by the suggestion of negotiations, however unclear the prospects for dialogue remains. The benchmark MOEX index was up 20% after losing as much as 45% on Thursday, while the ruble strengthened 2.7% against the dollar after hitting a record low.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told Putin in a call earlier on Friday that he supported negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, according to China Central Television. It cited Putin as saying that he was ready to conduct high-level talks.
Still, Putin’s condition appears to be a replacement of Ukraine’s leadership, which he has called a “junta.” On Friday, the Russian president asked Ukrainian troops to help him overthrow the government.
“Take power into your own hands,” he said, addressing Ukraine’s military in a video statement before a meeting of his security council in Moscow.
Lavrov said that Moscow will only talk if Ukraine’s army surrenders. “We’re ready for negotiations at any time, as soon as the Ukrainian armed forces respond to our president’s call, stop resistance and lay down their weapons,” he said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed Zelenskiy and his government as “puppets.” Despite the offer of talks, the assault on Ukraine is ongoing to secure the “de-militarization” of the country, she said.
In Kyiv, the Defense Ministry said that “thousands” of volunteers were signing up to fight the invasion, with 18,000 rifles handed out alone on Thursday. Russian forces continued to advance closer to the capital on the western bank of the Dnieper river, where they were being engaged by Ukrainian forces, presidential spokesman Oleksiy Arestovych said during the morning.
Zelenskiy said that his intelligence services had identified him as Russia’s top target, but that he is staying in Kyiv and his family will remain in the country. “They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state,” he said.
In a later address, he said that Ukraine was not afraid “to talk about neutral status,” but went on to demand security guarantees and say that the country’s fate depended on its army.
French President Emmanuel Macron said that he’d had a frank, direct – and rapid – conversation with Putin at Zelenskiy’s request. Macron said Zelenskiy, who hasn’t been able to reach the Russian leader, wanted him to ask Putin to stop the fighting and engage in diplomacy.
“It didn’t produce any effect so far as you can see, because the Russian president has chosen war,” Macron said.