US steps up aid to Ukraine as pressure builds to halt Russia

KYIV, Ukraine – The United States will unveil a new round of security assistance to Ukraine Wednesday, as Western leaders faced mounting pressure to stop Russia's bombardment of civilians and peace talks made halting progress.

A White House official said President Joe Biden will unveil another $800 million worth of military aid, expected to include more of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles that have helped slow Russia's three-week-old invasion to a crawl.

The package will bring "the total (aid) announced in the last week alone to $1 billion," said the official.

The move will coincide with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's landmark virtual address to the US Congress -- when he is expected to intensify pleas for NATO allies to intervene directly to stop Russian attacks.

Kyiv was subjected to a fresh round of bombardment overnight, with columns of smoke rising high into the morning sky.

Ukraine's State Emergency Service said 12-storey residential building was among the targets hit, with at least two people injured, 37 evacuated and a nearby building damaged.

Hours before, in a late-night video message, Zelensky urged his beleaguered compatriots to fight on against Russia's vastly larger military, even as he suggested the conflict would end in a negotiated settlement.

"All wars end with an agreement," he said, pointing to a "difficult" but "important" ongoing round of talks between representatives from Kyiv and Moscow.

"Meetings continue," he added. "As I am told, positions during the talks now sound more realistic. But we still need time, so the decisions are made in the interest of Ukraine."

Recent days have seen an uptick in Russian strikes on civilian targets, including in Kyiv and the besieged port city of Mariupol where there is a critical lack of food, water and medicine.

Some 20,000 residents of the southern city have been allowed to leave, but exhausted, shivering evacuees speak of harrowing escape journeys and rotting corpses littering the streets.

One of them, Mykola, who asked not to give his full name, drove his wife and two young children through a minefield to escape and to avoid Russian checkpoints.

"This is the first time I have been able to breathe in weeks," he said.

The conflict has already sent more than three million Ukrainians fleeing across the border, and a peaceful resolution still seems beyond reach.

- Peacekeepers? -

Western military experts believe Russia is increasingly turning to air bombardments after an initial ground invasion stalled -- and as possible leverage in negotiations.

"They have found that their ground operations are not succeeding very well and where they are making gains they are at massive costs that are not sustainable," Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major general, told AFP.

"They have had to change to 'Plan C' -- which is bombard cities and terrorise civilians in the hope that the Ukrainians will reach some kind of political accommodation," he said.

"What the Russians are doing is using our own humanity against us and Zelensky's humanity against him."

Zelensky earlier told Ukrainians they may need to put aside thoughts of joining NATO. That was always a faint prospect, but one which Russia has repeatedly cited as a justification for its invasion.

Putin accused Kyiv of "not showing a serious commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions" according to the Kremlin's account of a call with EU Council leader Charles Michel.

The latest series of attacks coincided with the visit to Kyiv of a trio of Polish, Czech and Slovenian leaders and the introduction of a 35-hour curfew.

The three countries have been among the most forthright in calling for a tougher Western approach to Moscow.

During the visit, Poland's Vice Premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski called for the deployment of a NATO or other international peacekeeping mission "that will be able to defend itself and that will operate on Ukrainian territory."

Such appeals have so far received little support in the West, where there is fear such moves could trigger a catastrophic war with nuclear-armed Russia.

Instead Western nations have opted to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically.

They have introduced crippling sanctions that have pushed Russia towards a possible default on its debt, and forced Moscow out of many international political and sporting forums.

Facing expulsion from the Council of Europe, Russia on Tuesday said it would pull out of the pan-European rights body.

Ireland joined the condemnation of Moscow Tuesday, after French-Irish Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, and Ukrainian producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova, were killed when their vehicle was struck by incoming fire outside Kyiv a day earlier.

"We condemn this indiscriminate and immoral war by Russia on Ukraine," said Prime Minister Micheal Martin.

The news came after the Ukrainian parliament's human rights chief said three other journalists had been killed since the invasion began, including a US reporter shot Sunday in Irpin.