Ukraine leader frees convicts with combat skills to fight Russia

A Ukrainian serviceman gives a thumbs-up sign riding atop a military vehicle
A Ukrainian serviceman gives a thumbs-up sign riding atop a military vehicle [File: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP]

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has authorised the release of convicts with combat experience to help fight the Russian invaders.

Speaking in a new video address published on the fifth day of the full-scale war with Russia, Zelenskyy said on Monday that the decision was “not easy from the moral point of view”, but it was justified from his war-torn country’s defence standpoint.

He also called on Russian soldiers to lay down their weapons, claiming that more than 4,500 enemy troops had already been killed by Ukraine.

“Abandon your equipment. Get out of here. Don’t believe your commanders. Don’t believe your propagandists. Just save your lives,” Zelenskyy said.

The 44-year-old leader also urged the European Union to grant his country “immediate” membership “via a new special procedure”.

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

Zelenskyy speaks during a press conference

He once again thanked the West for its support, saying: “Support of our anti-war coalition is unconditional and unprecedented.”

“Each of us is a warrior,” Zelenskyy said. “And I am sure that each of us will win.”

Ukraine forces, backed by Western arms, have managed to slow the advance of the Russian army.

Zelenskyy said 16 children had died during the first four days of Moscow’s assault and another 45 were wounded as he hailed “Ukrainian heroes”.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, said on Monday that at least 102 civilians, including seven children, had been killed but warned the real numbers were probably far higher.

“Ukrainians have shown the world who we are. And Russia has shown what it has become,” Zelenskyy said.

Peace talks

The Ukrainian leader – a former comedian who came to power in 2019 – released his latest video statement before Russian and Ukrainian negotiators sat down for their first face-to-face talks since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to invade last Thursday.

Zelenskyy’s office said Kyiv’s goal for Monday’s talks was an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, says Moscow “has not given any hint or indication” that it intends to step back from its key demands ahead of the Russia-Ukraine talks.

“These demands include the neutrality of Ukraine, guarantees that it will never join NATO and that Kyiv recognise the declared independence of breakaway regions in the east of the country,” Hull said, citing the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).

“And you can probably include in that recognition that Crimea is officially part of Russia after it was annexed [by Moscow] back in 2014; most of the world and certainly Ukraine does not recognise that,” he added.

‘Suffering great losses’

Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia expert and researcher at Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera that Russia’s offensive has “practically stopped on all fronts”.

“A large morning assault on [the eastern city of] Kharkiv has been repelled and an attempt to enter Kyiv from the [town of] Irpen [to the west] has been stopped,” Mitrokhin said.

“Russia’s strategic position … is deteriorating rapidly. The Russian military is suffering great losses,” he added.

Mitrokhin identified three possible angles from which Moscow’s forces may, however, refocus their efforts and attack – on Kyiv from the north, on the southern port city of Odesa and on the eastern city of Poltava.


Which countries are sending military aid to Ukraine?

Ukrainian forces are seen testing weapons
Territorial defence fighters test weapons and ammunition in Kyiv [Mikhail Palinchak/EPA]

As the war between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate after Moscow sent its troops into its neighbouring country, several countries across the globe are sending military aid to Kyiv.

According to Ukraine’s health ministry, the conflict has killed more than 350 civilians since the beginning of Russia’s invasion.

The UN’s refugee agency also believes at least 368,000 people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries, mostly to Poland.

So, which countries are sending military assistance to Ukraine?

United States

On February 25, President Joe Biden instructed the State Department to release up to an additional $350m worth of weapons from US stocks to Ukraine.

In a memorandum to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden directed that $350m allocated through the Foreign Assistance Act be designated for Ukraine’s defence.

Ukraine has been asking for Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to shoot down aircraft.

The Pentagon said the weapons included anti-armour, small arms, body armour and various munitions in support of Ukraine’s front-line defenders. A State Department spokesperson said anti-aircraft systems were also included in the material.

Over the past year, the United States has committed more than $1bn in security assistance to Ukraine, Blinken said.

United Kingdom

In January, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK had “taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light anti-armour defensive weapon systems”.

On Wednesday, Downing Street promised military support to Ukraine, including lethal defensive weapons.

“In light of the increasingly threatening behaviour from Russia and in line with our previous support, the UK will shortly be providing a further package of military support to Ukraine,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament. “This will include lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid.”

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France, which has already sent help, is dispatching more military equipment as well as fuel.


Paris said it has acted on earlier Ukrainian requests for defensive anti-aircraft and digital weapons.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands will supply air defence rockets and anti-tank systems to Ukraine, the Dutch government said in letters to parliament on Saturday.

The Dutch government agreed to a Ukrainian request to rapidly ship 200 Stinger air defence rockets and 50 “Panzerfaust 3” anti-tank weapons with 400 rockets, the letters said.


It is also jointly considering sending a Patriot air defence system alongside Germany to a NATO battle group in Slovakia, it said.


Germany will supply Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles from Bundeswehr stocks for defence against Russia.

It is a major shift from Berlin’s longstanding policy of banning weapon exports to a conflict zone.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point. It is our duty to do our best to support Ukraine in defending itself against Putin’s invading army,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Saturday.


Ottawa is sending lethal military weaponry to Ukraine and loaning Kyiv half a billion Canadian dollars ($394m) to help it defend itself.

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Stockholm is also breaking its historic neutral stance to send 5,000 anti-tank rockets to Ukraine as well as field rations and body armour.

It is the first time Sweden has sent weapons to a country in armed conflict since the Soviet Union invaded neighbouring Finland in 1939.


Belgium says it will supply Ukraine with 3,000 more automatic rifles and 200 anti-tank weapons, as well as 3,800 tonnes of fuel.


Portugal is giving Ukraine night-vision goggles, bulletproof vests, helmets, grenades, ammunition and automatic G3 rifles.


Greece, which has a large diaspora community in Ukraine – 10 of whom have been killed – is sending “defence equipment” as well as humanitarian aid.


Romania – which shares a border with Ukraine – is offering to treat wounded people from the crisis zones in its 11 military hospitals as well as sending fuel, bulletproof vests, helmets and other “military material” worth $3.3m.


The Spanish government has promised to send 20 tonnes of aid to Ukraine, mostly medical and defensive equipment such as bulletproof vests.

Czech Republic

Prague said Saturday it is sending Ukraine 4,000 mortars “in the next few hours” as well as an arsenal of 30,000 pistols, 7,000 assault rifles, 3,000 machine guns, many sniper rifles and a million bullets.

The Czechs had already promised Kyiv 4,000 mortars worth $1.6m which have yet to be delivered.


Russian forces meeting ‘strong and wide’ Ukraine resistance

Russian soldiers on an armoured personnel carrier move towards mainland Ukraine on the road near Armiansk, Crimea.
Russian soldiers on an armoured vehicle move towards mainland Ukraine on a road near Armiansk, Crimea, on Friday [EPA-EFE]

Ukraine forces are reportedly putting up strong resistance to invading Russian forces as they surround and bomb the capital Kyiv on Sunday.

According to United States military information, Russia now has at least 50 percent of its estimated 150,000-strong invasion force inside Ukraine.

Analysts interviewed suggested the Russian military may have been caught off-guard by the level of pushback by Ukrainian fighters, and more troops would likely enter the fray in the coming days.

“Russia is clearly facing setbacks that it did not expect. It’s taking casualties and Ukraine is taking prisoners, including some quite senior, at least one, possibly two, brigade commanders,” said Nigel Gould-Davies from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“So Russia will be motivated now to accelerate the forces that it brings to this conflict. So far, it’s been using about half of the forces it has mobilised and prepared for this so in numerical terms.

“It’s quite clear that Russia has a very significant advantage. But the really impressive aspect of Ukraine’s resistance so far is how strong and how wide it has been,” said Gould-Davis, a former United Kingdom ambassador to Belarus.

Tom Bullock, an open source intelligence analyst for intelligence information firm Janes, said Russian forces so far have not been able to capitalise on their vastly superior military advantage.

He said fighting has slowed around major cities after Russian troops and equipment stormed the country on Thursday.

“The trend we are seeing is that the Russians are incurring losses, they are losing equipment and definitely losing soldiers. But so are the Ukrainians. In some places such as the south it appears the losses are heavier on the Ukrainian side.

“It does appear as though the Russians were expecting less resistance from the Ukrainians when they entered. That clearly hasn’t been the case,” Bullock told Al Jazeera.

‘Lack of momentum’

Troops and equipment are making slow progress on Moscow’s original three-front thrust because of “very determined resistance”, an American defence official told reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments.

“We have indications that the Russians are increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum over the last 24 hours, particularly in the north parts of Ukraine,” the official said.

Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify the claim.

Russia said its forces pursued their advance after claiming to have paused their assault on Ukraine following an order from President Vladimir Putin. The Russian president subsequently ordered the attack to resume after Kyiv ignored Moscow’s call for negotiations. A Ukrainian official denied Kyiv had rejected talks.

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In Moscow on Saturday, the defence ministry said the Russian army had been ordered to broaden its offensive.

“Today all units were given orders to develop the advance from all directions in accordance with the operation’s plans,” Russian Army Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov announced.

Russia has so far not succeeded in fully taking any Ukrainian city, although its forces have been bearing down on Kyiv as well as Kharkiv, which lies close to the Russian border.

Russia has claimed control of southern urban centres, including Melitopol and Kherson, north of the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, but this has not been confirmed.

The conflict has been marked by radically different versions of events from both sides.

Ukraine’s health minister said on Saturday 198 civilians, including three children, have been killed so far by Russian forces.

Russia has not said how many of its soldiers have been killed in the invasion, which it calls a “special military operation”. Moscow has said its goal is to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

Western sources agree days of fierce fighting looms for control of Kyiv with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has insisted on staying in the capital, in physical danger.

‘Repelling enemy attacks’

The bulk of the Russian troops reportedly remained 30km (18 miles) outside of Kyiv.

A defiant Zelenskyy said his forces were repelling Russian troops advancing on the capital.

“We have withstood and are successfully repelling enemy attacks. The fighting goes on,” Zelenskyy said in a video message from the streets of Kyiv posted on his social media.

“Our main goal is to end this bloodbath. The enemy is suffering heavy losses – hundreds of soldiers killed who crossed our border and entered our land. Unfortunately, we are also suffering losses. Ukrainians are courageously resisting the aggression,” said Zelenskyy.

The US and Western allies are still able to deliver arms into the country to bolster the Ukraine military, and Washington plans to send more in the coming days to help them fight both Russian armour on the ground and assaults from the air, the US official said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Saturday that Washington will provide $350m in additional military equipment to Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, won independence from Moscow in 1991 and wants to join NATO and the EU – goals Russia opposes.

Putin has said the West failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.


Turkey says cannot stop Russian warships accessing Black Sea

The Russian Navy's landing ship Minsk sets sail in the Dardanelles
The Russian Navy’s landing ship Minsk sets sail in the Dardanelles, on its way to the Black Sea, in Canakkale, Turkey, February 8 [File: Yoruk Isik/Reuters]

The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey cannot stop Russian warships accessing the Black Sea via its straits, as Ukraine has requested, due to a clause in an international pact.

Ukraine has appealed to Turkey to block Russian warships from passing through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits which lead to the Black Sea, after Moscow on Thursday launched a full-blown assault on Ukraine from land, air and sea.

Russian forces landed at Ukraine’s Black and Azov Sea ports as part of the invasion.

Turkey has control over the straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention, and can limit the passage of warships during wartime or if threatened. However, the request has put the NATO member in a difficult position as it tries to manage its Western commitments and close ties with Russia.

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Speaking in Kazakhstan on Thursday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was studying Kyiv’s request but said Russia had the right under the Convention to return ships to their home base, in this case, the Black Sea.

If Turkey decided after a legal process to accept Ukraine’s request and close the straits to Russian warships, he said, they would only be prevented from travelling in the other direction, away from their home base into the Mediterranean.

“If countries involved in the war make a request to return their vessels to their bases, that needs to be allowed,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted Cavusoglu as saying.

Turkey’s role

Cavusoglu added that Turkish legal experts were still trying to determine whether the conflict in Ukraine could be defined as a war, which would allow the convention mandates to be invoked.


Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, said on Friday Kyiv was expecting a “positive response” from Ankara to its request.

Cavusoglu also reiterated Ankara’s opposition to imposing economic sanctions against Russia, a stance that has set Turkey apart from most of its NATO allies which have already announced such measures.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised Western countries on Friday for giving “ample advice” without the determination to match.

Speaking to reporters hours before he was due to take part in a virtual NATO summit, Erdogan said the alliance should have taken a “more decisive” stance over the Russian aggression against Ukraine.


Turkey has close ties to both Russia and Ukraine.

In an address to an international gathering in Ankara on Thursday, Erdogan said Turkey “sincerely regrets” that the two countries are confronting each other.