Early on Thursday, a small force of 40 troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, known as the Sky Soldiers, arrived in Latvia from their home base in Italy.
The deployment is part of a movement of 800 American troops and equipment into the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are all now part of the NATO alliance.
President Joe Biden has said that the movement is defensive in nature and that the U.S. has “no intention of fighting Russia.”
The development comes as invading Russian forces closed in on Ukraine’s capital Friday, in an apparent encircling movement after a barrage of airstrikes on cities and military bases around the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told somber European Union leaders in a video link-up from his bunker late Thursday that it may be the last time they see him alive.
Pre-dawn explosions rocked Kyiv, and gunfire was reported in parts of the city, while Ukraine’s military said a group of Russian spies and saboteurs was seen on the capital’s outskirts. Police told people not to exit a central subway station because of gunfire.
The assault, anticipated for weeks by the West, amounts to Europe’s largest ground conflict since World War II. It could also portend the emergence of a new “Iron Curtain” between the West and Russia, with global repercussions.
Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Anna Malyar, tweeted Friday about a “possible invasion of the occupiers in Vorzel and surrounding settlements,” which is about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Kyiv.
Malyar added that Russian troops had seized two Ukrainian army vehicles, had put on Ukrainian army uniforms and were trying to advance on Kyiv.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also said airborne assault troops blew up a bridge over the Teteriv River at Ivankiv, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kyiv, successfully preventing a Russian column of forces from advancing towards the capital.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Russian reconnaissance troops have entered Obolon, which is just a few miles from the city center.
Meanwhile, Russia has not taken any of its major objectives in the first 24 hours of its invasion of Ukraine and has lost more than 450 personnel, according to the United Kingdom’s defence secretary.
Ben Wallace told Sky News it was the UK government’s view that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends “to invade the whole of Ukraine”.
But he said Russia was “behind its hoped-for timetable” in the military action against its neighbour.
“Our assessment, as of this morning, is that Russia has not taken any of its major objectives,” the defence secretary said.
“In fact it’s behind its hoped-for timetable. They’ve lost over 450 personnel.
“One of the significant airports they were trying to capture with their elite spetsnaz [special forces] has failed to be taken and, in fact, the Ukrainians have taken it back.
“So I think, contrary to great Russian claims and indeed President Putin’s vision that somehow the Ukrainians would be liberated and would be flocking to his cause, he’s got that completely wrong.
“And the Russian army has failed to deliver on day one its main objective.”
Providing an update on the war, Ukraine’s military chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi said Friday that the country’s army was successfully resisting Russian forces advancing from the north.
Zaluzhnyi said Ukrainian forces had been able to repel the breakthrough of Russian troops in the Chernihiv area north of the capital, Kyiv.
“Enemy vehicles were forced to retreat from Chernihiv in the direction of Sedniv and from Horodnya to Semenivka,” he said.
Meanwhile, hopes for a negotiated end to the war dimmed on Friday after a tentative deal to discuss Zelenskyy’s offer to designate Ukraine a non-aligned country appeared to break down over the proposed venue for the talks.
The Kremlin had said President Vladimir Putin was ready to send a delegation to Belarus for talks to discuss the proposal that suggests Zelenskyy would be willing to negotiate dropping his country’s bid to join NATO.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ukrainian officials reversed course and said they were unwilling to travel to Minsk for talks, proposing Warsaw as a venue instead. He said they then cut off communication.
Before the invasion, the West had rejected Russia’s demand to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Putin used the refusal to justify the invasion, claiming that the West left him no other choice.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Zelenskyy of “simply lying” about the non-alignment offer, saying the president “missed the opportunity” to discuss Ukraine’s neutral status when Putin initially proposed it.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, Shabia Mantoo, said more than 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes in Ukraine and that “up to 4 million people may flee to other countries if the situation escalates.”
Thousands of Ukrainians crossed Friday into neighboring countries to the west in search of safety from the unfolding war in their country.
With men of military age banned from leaving the country, most of those who crossed borders were women, children and the elderly.
One woman from Kyiv who arrived in Przemsyl, Poland described how men were pulled off trains in Ukraine before they got to the border.
In what appeared a breach of protocol, Pope Francis paid a visit to the Russian embassy in Italy to “express his concern about the war” in Ukraine.
Pope Francis’ extraordinary gesture was viewed as a sign of his anger at Russia’s actions, and his willingness to make a personal appeal for the end of hostilities.
The pope travelled to and from the Russian embassy in a small white car with Vatican officials saying they knew of no such previous papal initiative.
The West has taken a military option in Ukraine off the table, but world leaders — with the exception of Moscow ally China — are preparing measures aimed at hurting the Russian economy and its leaders, including President Putin’s inner circle.
French President Emmanuel Macron said his country and its allies have decided to further sanction individuals, and impose penalties targeting finance, energy and other sectors.
Macron also said the European Union has decided on an “unprecedented” 1.5 billion euros ($1.68 billion) in economic aid for Ukraine.
Latvia’s foreign minister said the EU on Friday agreed to freeze the assets of Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. But it was unclear how badly they would be hit by such a move.
Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn said even further sanctions were still possible, including booting Russia off SWIFT, the dominant system for global financial transactions.
Asian and Pacific countries have joined the West in taking punitive measures against Russia, including export controls aimed at starving its industries and military of semiconductors and other high-tech products.