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Russia, Ukraine start first peace talks since invasion

Russia and Ukraine met Monday for their first talks since the outbreak of war last week, with Kyiv demanding an “immediate ceasefire” as the number of refugees fleeing the country hit more than 500,000.

As the delegations arrived for talks on the border between Belarus and Ukraine on day five of Moscow’s invasion, the Ukrainian presidency demanded the ceasefire “and the withdrawal of troops” – which Moscow is almost certain to reject.

“I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said.

Severe financial sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow showed their impact on financial markets on Monday morning, with the Russian ruble collapsing to a record low and the Russian central bank more than doubling interest rates to 20 percent.

The sanctions targeting the Russian financial sector are intended to change the calculus of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin, but on the ground the roughly 100,000 Russian troops thought to be inside Ukraine continued an invasion from the north, east and south.

Western defence officials and the Kyiv government say battling Ukrainian troops have kept the country’s major cities out of Russian hands despite incursions in the capital Kyiv and the second largest city, Kharkiv, over the weekend.

“The Russian occupiers have reduced the pace of the offensive,” the general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said Monday, again claiming that Moscow had suffered “heavy losses”.

The small southern city of Berdyansk has been occupied by Russian soldiers, however, Ukrainian officials said.

In the capital Monday, after a relatively calm evening, people rushed out to buy food after the lifting of a strict blanket curfew imposed Saturday, with local forces given shoot-on-sight orders over the weekend.

Amid reports of further Russian troop movements towards Kyiv, Moscow said it had now “gained air superiority over the entire territory of Ukraine”, while accusing Ukrainian troops of using civilians as human shields.

Putin on Sunday ordered Russia’s nuclear forces onto high alert in response to what he called “unfriendly” steps by the West, whose unity and speed in imposing sanctions on the Russian economy has surprised observers.

“The Western sanctions on Russia are hard, but our country has the necessary potential to compensate the damage,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Monday.

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