KYIV, Ukraine — An embattled Ukraine moved to solidify its bond with the West on Monday by applying to join the European Union, while the first round of Ukraine-Russia talks aimed at ending the fighting concluded with no deal but an agreement to keep talking.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted photos of himself signing the EU application, a largely symbolic move for now that could take years to become reality and is unlikely to sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit.
Russian and Ukrainian officials held their meeting on Day Five of the war under the shadow of Putin’s nuclear threats, and with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine running into unexpectedly fierce resistance and Western sanctions beginning to wreak havoc on the economy at home.
A top Zelenskyy adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the the talks, held near the Ukraine-Belarus border, were focused on a possible cease-fire and that a second round could take place “in the near future.”
A top Putin aide and head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said that the discussions lasted nearly five hours and that the envoys “found certain points on which common positions could be foreseen.” He said they agreed to continue the talks in the coming days.
As the discussions wrapped up, several blasts could be heard in Kyiv, though no details were immediately known. Russian troops, who are attacking Ukraine on multiple fronts, were advancing slowly on the capital city of 3 nearly million people and were about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the city center, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments.
Messages aimed at the advancing Russian soldiers popped up on billboards, bus stops and electronic traffic signs across Kyiv. Some used profanity to encourage Russians to leave. Others appealed to their humanity.
“Russian soldier — Stop! Remember your family. Go home with a clean conscience,” one read.
Meanwhile, social media video from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, showed residential areas being shelled, with apartment buildings shaken by repeated, powerful blasts. Authorities in Kharkiv said at least seven people had been killed and dozens injured. They warned that casualties could be far higher.
“They wanted to have a blitzkrieg, but it failed, so they act this way,” said 83-year-old Valentin Petrovich, using just his first name and his Russian-style middle name because of fear for his safety. He described watching the shelling from his downtown apartment.
The Russian military has denied targeting residential areas despite abundant evidence of shelling of homes, schools and hospitals
For the second day in a row, the Kremlin raised the specter of nuclear war, reporting that its land, air and sea nuclear forces had been put on high alert following Putin’s weekend order. And stepping up his rhetoric, Putin denounced the U.S. and its allies as an “empire of lies.”
For many, the nuclear high alert stirred up memories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and fears that the West could be drawn into direct conflict with Russia.
However, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had yet to see any appreciable change in Russia’s nuclear posture.
As the sanctions on Russian banks and other institutions took hold, Russia’s Central Bank scrambled to shore up the tanking ruble, and Putin signed a decree on foreign currency, in a bid to stabilize the ruble.
But that did little to calm Russian fears. In Moscow, people lined up to withdraw cash as the sanctions threatened to drive up prices and reduce the standard of living for millions of Russians.
Across Ukraine, meanwhile, terrified families huddled overnight in shelters, basements or corridors.
“I sit and pray for these negotiations to end successfully, so that they reach an agreement to end the slaughter, and so there is no more war,” said Alexandra Mikhailova, weeping as she clutched her cat in a makeshift shelter in the strategic southeastern port city of Mariupol. Around her, parents sought to console children and keep them warm.
The U.N. human rights chief said at least 102 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded in more than four days of fighting — warning that figure is probably a vast undercount — and Ukraine’s president said at least 16 children were among the dead.
More than a half-million people have fled the country since the invasion, another U.N. official said, with many of them going to Poland, Romania and Hungary. And millions have left their homes.
The negotiations at Monday’s talks met at a long table with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on one side and the Russian tricolor on the other.
But while Ukraine sent its defense minister and other top officials, the Russian delegation was led by Putin’s adviser on culture — an unlikely envoy for ending the war and perhaps a sign of how seriously Moscow views the talks.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Putin is seeking in the talks, or from the war itself, though Western officials believe he wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
Also, the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly opened its first emergency session in decades in order to deal with the Ukraine invasion, with Assembly President Abdulla Shahid calling for an immediate cease-fire, maximum restraint by all parties and “a full return to diplomacy and dialogue.”
In other fighting, strategic ports in the country’s south came under assault from Russian forces. Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, is “hanging on,” said Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich. An oil depot was reported bombed in the eastern city of Sumy. Ukrainian protesters demonstrated against encroaching Russian troops in the port of Berdyansk.
In a war being waged both on the ground and online, cyberattacks hit Ukrainian embassies around the world, and Russian media.
At this stage, Ukraine is many years away from reaching the standards for achieving EU membership. An addition to the 27-nation bloc must be approved unanimously.
Overall, the consensus has been that Ukraine’s deep-seated corruption could make it hard for the country to win EU acceptance. Still, in an interview with Euronews on Sunday, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said, “We want them in the European Union.”
Isachenkov and Litvinova reported from Moscow. Ellen Knickmeyer, Eric Tucker, Robert Burns and Hope Yen in Washington; James LaPorta in Miami; Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; Mstyslav Chernov and Nic Dumitrache in Mariupol, Ukraine; Lorne Cook in Brussels; and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.