Russia-Ukraine conflict: Kiwi Tom Mutch reporting from Kyiv bunker fears for civilians caught in firing line

An independent Kiwi journalist reporting from a Kyiv bunker fears civilians will be caught in the firing line after hearing of an imminent Russian aerial assault on the city.

"I am currently sitting here in a bomb shelter in what used to be up until about three days ago a normally functioning metro station," Tom Mutch told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"You can see the long lines of people behind me. They're all civilians that are sheltering here. We've heard there's going to be a Russian aerial assault on the city, it could be fairly indiscriminate, and so everyone down here is hiding down for the night."

Mutch, speaking from the bunker where hundreds were taking cover, said he had "seen many men and women walking around the streets of Kyiv with rifles".

He said he interviewed a woman in the bunker who told him her plan for the week was to make molotov cocktails, also known as a petrol bombs - homemade explosives to throw at Russian tanks. 

Russian missiles pounded Kyiv while families cowered in shelters and authorities told people to defend Ukraine's capital on Friday, according to reporting by the international news agency Reuters. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday launched a military operation in Ukraine, confirming months of speculation of a region Putin considers to be land sliced off Russia following the Soviet Union's collapse in the early 1990s. 

In a speech from the Beehive on Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said more than 80 strikes had been carried out against Ukrainian targets and that Russian ground forces were advancing across the border on at least three axis from north and northeast and south from Crimea. 

"We do understand there have been explosions heard throughout the city. We're not aware of any details of casualties or exact numbers yet but everyone here is very tense, very on edge," Mutch told the Nation. 

"Large numbers of people have been trying to leave via the train station. Most of them want to get to western Ukraine which is considered much safer territory, because it really does look like over the next week the Russian army could launch a really serious offensive here."

Moscow said it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital - a potential staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war, according to Reuters. 

However, this could not be confirmed and the Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says 137 civilians and military personnel have been killed so far in the Russian invasion and 300 people were injured in less than 24 hours of fighting.

A 17-year-old boy was killed in an attack on the village of Semikhatky in the southern Kherson region, and two other children were killed in shelling in eastern Ukraine, one in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Region, and the other in Mariupol, Donetsk region, according to Save the Children. 

"They're killing people and turning peaceful cities into military targets. It's foul and will never be forgiven," Zelenskiy said in a video update. 

Mutch plans to leave Kyiv.

"My personal plans, I'm taking it one hour at a time. But we've been told by a lot of serious people that the time to leave - at least Kyiv - for western Ukraine, is within the next 24 hours, so I think that might be my plan," he told the Nation. 

Zelenskiy has vowed not to leave Ukraine and has banned males aged 18-60 from departing the country, urging them to take up arms and fight. 

"The Ukrainians are extremely good fighters - extremely passionate about defending their country. But the Russians do have an absolutely overwhelming advantage in terms of their air power, in terms of their plain numbers, in terms of the quality of their weapons and their communications systems," Mutch told the Nation. 

"If they want to take Ukraine by force, it is a matter of time. Will they be able to hold Ukraine in the face of a very determined resistance? That remains to be seen and on my money, I don't think they will be able to do it for very long."

The European Union has agreed to freeze any European assets of Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, as Ukraine's leader pleaded for faster and more forceful sanctions to punish Russia's invasion of his country.

Because Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) - an intergovernmental military alliance between 28 European countries and the United States and Canada - it must fight the battle alone. 

But the US and UK are excluding major Russian banks from their financial systems to punish Russia. 

US President Joe Biden said the US had sanctioned Russian banks that hold around US$1 trillion in assets. It includes VTB, the second largest bank in Russia, which has US$250 billion in assets. 

Britain, meanwhile, has banned Russia's national airline Aeroflot from landing, and imposed a limit on deposits Russians can make in UK bank accounts. Russia responded by shutting its airspace to the UK. 

Mutch told the Nation he doubts the sanctions will change Putin's mind. 

"Putin has played his cards. He's committed to making this assault on Ukraine. This is not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This is a war of aggression being waged and I don't think anything could stop it in terms of diplomatic sanctions. He's already made up his mind.

"The other main thing that could be done is to kick Russia out of the SWIFT banking system, and a lot of people are calling for a potential 'no fly zone' over Ukraine. Now that's a very dangerous step that could involve NATO and Russia going to war."

SWIFT stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. Headquartered in Belgium, it's a global messaging system connecting thousands of financial institutions around the world.  

Iran lost access to SWIFT in 2012 as part of sanctions over its nuclear programme, but many of the country's banks were reconnected in 2016. 

Biden says shutting Russia off from SWIFT remains a possibility. He told reporters on Thursday it is "always an option," but he added that "right now that's not the position the rest of Europe wishes to take."  

New Zealand has imposed travel bans on Russians associated with the invasion, prohibited the export of all goods intended for use by the Russian military and security forces, and suspended bilateral engagement until further notice.

"New Zealand can't act very well against Russia on its own," Mutch told the Nation. 

"It's not big enough to provide the economic cut, but it can as it has in the past, provide some moral leadership. So I think New Zealand can take moral leadership on this issue but it can't necessarily be a major actor in this crisis at this time."