Russian forces bombarded the Ukrainian city Mariupol again on Thursday amid international outrage over the bombing of a children’s hospital there, while a massive convoy that has been stalled for over a week outside Kyiv appeared to split up into surrounding towns and forests.
Civilians in the port city of Mariupol are facing increasingly dire conditions with scarce food, fuel and electricity. Bodies are being buried in mass graves.
The Kremlin displayed harried confusion in its response to criticism Thursday, at times completely denying the Mariupol hospital bombing and at other moments alleging an elaborate propaganda ploy by the West.
Photos and video of the bombing’s aftermath clearly show severely injuried people – including a pregnant woman – being taken by stretcher from the rubble.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, however, has said the building was a hospital and called the attack an “atrocity.”
The hospital complex in Mariupol bombed Wednesday resulted in at least three deaths, including one child, Ukraine authorities say. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the claim Thursday, saying the hospital had been emptied of patients and was being used as an extremist base.
The attack was condemned internationally and branded a “war crime” by Ukrainian and Western leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron called it “a shameful and immoral act of war.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was “horrific” and “barbaric.”
“This is not the first time when we see pathetic cries about so-called atrocities committed by the Russian armed forces,” Lavrov said. “Our delegation presented facts at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council proving that the maternity hospital had long been seized by fighters of the Azov battalion and other radicals. They kicked all patients, all nurses, and all service personnel out.”
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Later, Russia denied responsibility entirely and claimed the attack was staged to make the Kremlin look bad. Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov denied the strike. He claimed that the two explosions that ravaged the building were caused by explosive devices planted nearby in what he described as a “staged provocation to incite anti-Russian agitation in the West.”
Meanwhile, the highest-level talks yet failed to reach agreement on a humanitarian cease-fire aimed at protecting Ukraine cities battered by fierce Russian assaults.
In Poland, Vice President Kamala Harris reiterated the U.S. commitment to NATO and defense of its members is “ironclad.” Harris, during a joint news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda, said America is deeply appreciative of Poland’s efforts to aid refugees fleeing the carnage in Ukraine.
“This is a moment that requires severe and swift consequences for Russian aggression against Ukraine,” Harris said. “What is at stake, this very moment, are some of the guiding principles around the NATO alliance.”
The meeting came after the Biden administration rejected a plan from Poland that would involve U.S. involvement in providing fighter jets to Ukraine, a decision drawing questions from some Republican senators. U.S. defense officials also have distanced themselves from Ukraine requests for a NATO-backed no-fly zone over the country.
In Turkey, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met, the most pressing issue the southern port of Mariupol. The city has been rocked by two weeks of unrelenting bombardment leaving inhabitants struggling to obtain, food, water, shelter and other basic necessities. Multiple rounds of talks aimed at protecting Ukraine’s civilians have also failed to make headway toward peace.
► Congress passed $13.6 billion in humanitarian aid money for Ukraine and allies as part of a larger spending package that received bipartisan support in the Senate on Thursday.
►In addition to the more than 2.3 million people who have fled the war in Ukraine, an estimated 1.9 million people are displaced within the country, according to the U.N.
►Russian President Vladimir Putin shrugged off sanctions from the West, saying they are nothing new for Russians. ″Just as we overcame these difficulties in the previous years, we will overcome them now,” he said at a televised meeting of government officials. He acknowledged the sanctions create “certain challenges.”
►Former Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen visited Thursday with Ukraine refugees at the Korczowa border crossing in Poland. “The impact of the Russian invasion on these families is heartbreaking and the need for support is great,” Pence said on Twitter.
►The U.N. refugee agency says more than 2.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country, over 1.4 million of them through Poland. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Thursday that about 100,000 people have fled over the last two days through evacuation corridors.
►A Ukrainian man learned his family was killed through graphic images circulating on Twitter. Serhiy Perebyinis told The New York Times he first recognized the luggage in the photo where the lifeless bodies of his wife and two children were lying on the ground after being hit by shrapnel from a Russian mortar shelling Sunday.
President Joe Biden will announce Friday the U.S. will join the European Union and G7 allies in calling to revoke Russia’s permanent normal trade relations status, which would allow new tariffs on Russian imports, according to a source familiar with the decision.
The move, which requires congressional action, comes as a group of bipartisan lawmakers has pressured the president to take more aggressive action to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The source said Biden looks forward to working with Congress on legislation to revoke Russia’s permanent normal trade relations status.
Biden’s expected announcement would put Moscow’s trade relationship with the U.S. in the same category as North Korea and Cuba. Read more here.
— Courtney Subramanian
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied Russia’s accusation that Ukraine is preparing to attack with chemical or biological weapons, and he said the accusation itself was a bad sign.
“That worries me very much because we have often been convinced that if you want to know Russia’s plans, they are what Russia accuses others of,” he said in his nightly address to the nation.
Russia said it uncovered plans to create secret laboratories in Ukraine to produce biological weapons.
“I am a reasonable person. The president of a reasonable country and reasonable people. I am the father of two children,” Zelenskyy said. “And no chemical or any other weapon of mass destruction has been developed on my land. The whole world knows this.”
His comments came as the U.S. and other Western leaders expressed similar concerns that Russia was hinting as its possible next move in using such weapons in the war in Ukraine.
Russian forces shelled a nuclear research institute in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city on Thursday, setting buildings ablaze, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.
A shell hit a building where there is equipment that could release radiation if it were damaged, Gerashchenko said. According to the president’s office, there has been no change in the background radiation.
The shelling caused a fire, but firefighters were able to put it out.
Russian forces have already taken over two nuclear power plants in Ukraine, raising concerns about the security of nuclear facilities in the country.
The United States has seen “very credible reports” of deliberate attacks by Russians on Ukrainian civilians that would qualify as a war crime under international law, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday.
That could include the recent assault on the maternity and children’s hospital complex as well as strikes on schools, residential buildings, public buses and ambulances, he said. Price said the U.S. will do everything possible to hold accountable every Russian political leader, military commander and service member who participates in a war crime.
“Criminal prosecutions are one possibility,” he said.
The U.S. has the ability to conduct its own in-depth investigations and will support the appropriate international investigations, Price said. The International Criminal Court announced last week it’s investigating possible war crimes by Russia in Ukraine. Price was also pushed on the administration’s rejection of Poland’s offer to transfer Soviet-era fighter planes to the U.S., which could then give the planes to Ukraine.
Price repeated the administration’s argument that having the planes pass through U.S. hands would risk escalating the war. Asked if the U.S. would still support the original goal of having Poland transfer its planes directly to Ukraine, Price said that’s up to Poland.
“Individual NATO allies, individual countries are going to make sovereign decisions on what… they deem to be in their best interest,” he said.
– Maureen Groppe
Twitter announced Thursday it will label accounts and tweets linked to state media content in Belarus, a Russian ally. The move comes after the company launched labels on Kremlin-linked media accounts last week.
“As is standard with these labels, we’ll reduce the visibility of labeled Tweets and accounts, and show a prompt before you can share labeled Tweets,” said Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity.
Roth said adding labels to Russian state media has shown a decrease of 30% in impressions on its content.
Big tech companies have had to grapple with how to approach state media and propaganda. Google said it would block YouTube channels linked to Russian state media. Read more here.
Some public American universities with investments in Russia are cutting financial and academic ties to the country following its invasion of Ukraine, including all of Arizona’s public universities.
“Obviously we see the invasion of Ukraine as the actions of a mad despot and so we want to do as little as possible to help him in any possible way,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, one of the largest public institutions in the country.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also recently cut ties to a Russian university it helped launch, and Middlebury College withdrew students that had been studying in the country.
– Chris Quintana, USA TODAY; Alison Steinbach, Arizona Republic
A Ukrainian man waited to hear that his wife and children had safely evacuated to Kyiv amid the Russian invasion. Hours later, he learned his family was killed through graphic images circulating on Twitter.
Serhiy Perebyinis told The New York Times he first recognized the luggage in the photo where the lifeless bodies of his wife, Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, and their two children, Mykyta, 18, and Alisa, 9, and church volunteer Anatoly Berezhnyi, 26, were laying on the ground after being hit by shrapnel from a Russian mortar shelling on Sunday.
They were attempting to cross a bridge to safety when the mortar detonated 12 yards away from the family in the town of Irpin. Serhiy told the outlet he was in eastern Ukraine trying to help his sick mother when Tetiana decided it was time to flee to Kyiv.
“I told her, ‘Forgive me that I couldn’t defend you,’” he said. “I tried to care for one person, and it meant I cannot protect you.”
— Asha C. Gilbert
Ukrainian athletes at the Paralympics Games in China held a demonstration on Thursday at the Athletes Village, donning blue and yellow and holding a large banner that read, “Peace For All.”
The group held a minute of silence and called for peace before noting how personally impacted they have been by the war. Andriy Nesterenko, the head coach of the delegation, noted how members of their team were from areas that have been ravaged by the war. He said “some of them doesn’t have the possibility to come back. Their flats, their private houses are already destroyed,” he told reporters at the demonstration, according to The New York Times.
Already, a Ukrainian biathlete had to withdraw from a competition at the games after her father was captured by Russian troops. Anastasiia Laletina did not race in the biathlon middle distance sitting event Tuesday after she heard her father, a soldier in the Ukrainian army was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers, team spokesperson Nataliia Harach confirmed to USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. He was beaten and being treated by doctors.
The games barred Russia from competing in the games, citing tensions in the Athletes Village. The Russian Paralympic Committee called the decision “absolutely politicized.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday attacked what he called the Biden administration’s “confusing mismanagement and mixed signals” on the Ukraine crisis. The Kentucky Republican was referring to the Polish government’s surprise offer this week to give its Soviet-era fighter jets to the U.S., which would then give the planes to Ukraine. The administration, which had anticipated Poland would directly provide the planes to Ukraine, called Poland’s offer “untenable.” Involving the U.S. and a NATO air base would run a “high risk” of escalating the war, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
At least a dozen senators urged the Biden administration to reconsider. Some accused the White House of abandoning an ally in its time of need, while others implored it to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin or risk having him try to conquer other U.S. allies – or even America itself. Republican senators continued to rail against the administration at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
“I just want to let people know that on March the sixth, the United States policy was green-lighting MiGs to Ukraine if Poland did it. Now that Poland’s asked us to be part of the transfer system, we all of a sudden say no,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “And here’s what breaks my heart. This is dishonorable. It’s one thing to be incompetent. It’s another thing to be dishonorable.”
Fellow Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the U.S. isn’t sending the right message to Putin. “If we continue to blink every time Vladimir Putin says ‘Boo,’ he’s not going to stop in Ukraine, he’s not going to stop in Europe,” Cotton said.
– Maureen Groppe and Josh Meyer
Russian President Vladimir Putin has masked the costs of the Ukraine invasion in his own country through the dominance of state media and the “strangulation of independent media” but won’t be able to hide the truth indefinitely, according to CIA Director William Burns. Burns, a former ambassador to the Russian federation, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that many Russians have virtual private network accounts and retain access to YouTube and other sources of independent information.
As the damage mounts, Burns said Putin’s propaganda bubble would be punctured by the number of troops killed and wounded, the economic consequences of a worldwide trade embargo and the horrific scenes of hospitals and schools being bombed.
“I don’t believe that he is going to be able to seal Russians off entirely from the truth,” Burns said. “I don’t think he can bottle up the truth indefinitely.”
– Bart Jansen
Ukraine is not pursuing biological or nuclear weapons, as Russia has falsely spread through propaganda, the top U.S. intelligence official told a Senate panel Thursday.
Russia has accused the U.S. of sponsoring biological weapons research in Ukraine since invading the neighboring country two weeks ago. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, accused Ukraine of preparing a chemical attack. Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, testified that Ukraine has a dozen biological research labs developing countermeasures and how to prevent the spread of pandemics, but not weapons labs.
“I want to be absolutely clear that we do not believe that Ukraine is pursuing biological or nuclear weapons. We’ve seen no evidence of that,” Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This influence campaign is completely consistent with longstanding Russian efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring bio weapons work in the former Soviet Union. This is a classic move by the Russians.”
Borislav Bereza, former member of Ukrainian parliament and member of Ukrainian delegation in Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, posted a statement on social media warning that Russia could have a dangerous motive: “This is actually an announcement and confession that Russia is planning to use chemical weapons in the near future.”
– Bart Jansen
Vice President Kamala Harris said Russia’s airstrikes on hospitals were “atrocities of unimaginable proportion” and said the United Nations has a process to review and investigate to investigate such attacks. The World Health Organization says at least 18 attacks have been conducted on medical facilities since the invasion began Feb. 24.
Harris noted that “the eyes of the world are on this war and what Russia has done in terms of this aggression and these atrocities.”
Ukraine said Russian bombs severely damaged a maternity and children’s hospital complex in the besieged city of Mariupol on Wednesday, killing at least three people including a child and wounding at least 17 more.
“Russians are committing war crimes,” Polish President Duda said. “I hope that also in the future, it will be obvious for a court investigating those issues who bears responsibility for that.”
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Thursday that about 2 million people – half the population of the capital’s metropolitan area – have fled the city amid constant bombings from the Russian military. But he said the spirit of the city remains strong. Fighting is fierce, and the city has become a fortress, he said.
“Everyone says ‘Nothing will happen, we will not surrender our city,'” Klitschko said. “I can repeat these words: The city stood, the people will stand. They won’t give up. And the enemy won’t pass.”
Roman Abramovich’s attempt to sell British soccer team Chelsea has been halted after the Russian oligarch was sanctioned by the U.K. government. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated Chelsea’s value at $3.2 billion. Abramovich put the team up for sale last week, shortly before his assets were frozen.
The team cannot sell game tickets or merchandise. The British government is allowing the team to play its games, including one scheduled for Thursday night. Ticket-holders will be allowed to attend matches and staff will be paid. Abramovich, who made his fortune in oil and aluminum, has not condemned Russia’s invasion.
Ukrainian leaders say civilians are increasingly suffering and dying as Russia’s assault on Ukraine enters its third week. Multiple hospitals have been shelled, more than 2.3 million people have fled the country and more are struggling to leave. On the outskirts of Kyiv, hundreds of residents in towns occupied by Russian troops fled Wednesday. Some said they hadn’t eaten in days, while others told harrowing tales of war.
“Occupiers came to our house and they were ready to shoot us,” said Iuliia Bushinska, a Vorzel resident. “They took away our house, our car, they took away our documents. So we need to start our life from the beginning. We survived things that I never experienced in my life.”