United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin plan to visit Ukraine on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced.
Zelenskyy at a press conference on Saturday said he plans to meet with Blinken and Austin but did not share any details.
The White House declined to comment Saturday. A State Department spokesperson also declined to comment.
The trip would mark the highest ranking U.S. officials to visit Ukraine since Russia launched the war.
Biden said on April 14 that he was working with his foreign policy team to determine whether he should send a senior member of his administration to Ukraine in what would be a potentially dramatic show of support.
A number of other Western leaders have visited Ukraine, especially after Russian forces withdrew from the region surrounding Kyiv.
For weeks, Zelenskyy has pleaded with the U.S. and other Western allies to send Ukraine more weapons to counter the Russian invasion, including its ramped-up operations in the Donbas region and in the south.
Blinken and Austin met last month with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov in Warsaw, Poland, on the margins of President Biden’s trip to Europe. The two also toured Ukraine’s border with Poland.
During that visit, the two Biden cabinet secretaries discussed follow-ups to the March 24 NATO Summit in Brussels, and the United States’ “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of the Russian Federation’s increasingly brutal assault on Ukrainian cities and civilian population,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Blinken and Austin also pledged continued support to meet Ukraine’s humanitarian, security, and economic needs, Price said at the time.
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►The Pentagon says Austin will convene a meeting next week in Germany of defense officials and military leaders from more than 20 countries to discuss Ukraine’s immediate and long-term defense needs.
►The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that one serviceman died, 27 more went missing and 396 were rescued after a fire on the storied Russian warship Moskva last week.
►The U.N.’s human rights office said its investigators had documented at least 50 civilian deaths, including by summary execution, in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.
West pledges more weapons for Ukraine
As Russia shifts its focus to eastern Ukraine in an effort to control the Donbas region, more Western countries have pledged to send artillery to support Ukraine’s defense.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly called on international leaders to send more military aid, saying his country needs billions in assistance every month to offset economic losses since the start of Russia’s invasion, and hundreds of billions to rebuild its infrastructure.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron promised anti-tank missiles and howitzers. He told French newspaper Ouest France this week that France would continue to support Ukraine as much as it can without entering into direct conflict.
Canada is pledging weapons to help Ukraine, and recently delivered four M-777 howitzers, CBC News reported Friday, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier this week he would send “heavy artillery.”
And U.S. President Joe Biden announced additional military aid for Ukraine on Thursday totaling about $800 million, matching the same amount designated last week. Zelenskyy said it was “just what we were waiting for.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces tried to storm a steel plant housing soldiers and civilians in the southern city of Mariupol on Saturday in an attempt to crush the last corner of resistance in a place of deep symbolic and strategic value to Moscow, Ukrainian officials said.
The reported assault on the eve of Orthodox Easter came after the Kremlin claimed its military had seized all of the shattered city except for the Azovstal plant.
Nearly two months into the Russian-Ukraine war, the Kremlin has taken extraordinary steps to blunt an economic counteroffensive from the West. But the full impact of Western sanctions is starting to be felt in very real ways.
“The government wants to paint a picture that things are not as bad as they actually are,” said Michael Alexeev, an economics professor at Indiana University who has studied Russia’s economy in its transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin’s counter-measures have included increasing interest rates to as high as 20%, instituting capital controls and forcing Russian business to convert their profits into rubles. The value of the ruble has rebounded, but Russia’s economy is still dealing with more fallout. And experts note that it could take awhile for the true impact on Russia’s economy to appear.
Russia is dealing with the worst inflation in two decades. Companies that have been forced to shut down, or international businesses that have pulled out, has caused massive job loss. Moscow alone estimates 200,000 job losses after foreign companies have left. And Russia is facing a historic default on its bonds, which will likely freeze the country out of the debt markets for years.
Though leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere have said they want to tailor sanctions to hinder Russia’s ability to wage war but not to punish Russian citizens, everyday Russians are seeing prices go up.
– Jeanine Santucci and Ella Lee; The Associated Press
Modern-day political disinformation has roots in centuries-old Russian myth
Russian empress Catherine the Great ruled a vast empire and, over the years, conquered many new lands.
She appointed her boyfriend, Grigory, to oversee one of those conquests – a place now called Ukraine. As time passed, he informed her the citizens were flourishing and happy. But, according to a version of the tale passed on for centuries, it was a lie.
In the legend, Catherine planned to visit and observe the thriving, joyful subjects. Fearful his deceit would be exposed and eager to please his beloved, Grigory instructed minions to build fake villages along the riverfront – freshly painted facades.
To this day, people worldwide still refer to fake news and false fronts using his name: “Potemkin villages.”
But history and politics are a tangle of lies and intrigue, especially in Russia, so there is a twist to this tale: There were no fake villages. Researchers say Grigory’s accomplishments in Ukraine were authentic, and popular claims to the contrary are fiction – a smear spewed by Russian rivals at the time and forever seared into belief and vernacular.
“The very concept of ‘Potemkin village’ is a Potemkin village,” said Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of “Catherine the Great & Potemkin: Power Love & Russian Empire.”
While the legend may be bogus, historians believe the Crimea expedition and Potemkin’s fable remain at the heart of today’s conflict in Ukraine. Put simply, they contend, thousands have been killed and millions displaced in a war based on Putin’s misrepresentation of that history.
– Dennis Wagner
Putin declared victory in Mariupol, but ‘no evidence’ fighting is over
After reducing Ukraine’s eastern port city of Mariupol to rubble, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called the military campaign there a success, something he desperately needs as the war grinds into its third month.
It’s anything but.
Russia stopped short of routing hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from the strategic city’s giant steel plant. Ukraine and President Joe Biden rejected Putin’s claim of victory.
“There is no evidence yet that Mariupol has completely fallen,” Biden said after announcing a new round of military aid to Ukraine, raising the total U.S. assistance to about $3.4 billion since Putin invaded Ukraine.
“We’re in a critical window now of time where they’re going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” Biden said.
What is clear is that Mariupol’s residents have endured some of the worst atrocities committed by the Russians even as Russia lost about a quarter of its combat forces in Ukraine – troops, aircraft, tanks, ships and other equipment – since the war began Feb. 24.
– Maureen Groppe, Tom Vanden Brook
More than 240 cultural heritage sites, from churches to theaters, have been damaged by Russian forces, Ukraine’s cultural ministry said Saturday.
Some 242 attacks on Ukrainian cultural sites have been recorded in 11 regions of the nation, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. The Kharkiv region took the brunt of the damage, with 84 recorded attacks, followed by Donetsk and Kyiv.
More than 90 religious buildings were destroyed or damaged, including churches, mosques and synagogues. Other sites damaged or destroyed include 29 memorials to honor historical figures and events, 19 museums and 33 historical cultural buildings, like theaters and museums.
Ukraine’s cultural ministry described the attacks as “war crimes,” citing the 1954 Hague Convention which established global commitment to the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflicts.
“We document each episode and form a detailed basis for the Russian army’s atrocities against cultural heritage,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s minister of culture and information policy, said in a statement. “All materials will be used as evidence in criminal cases against war criminals.
“The aggressor will not be able to break the Ukrainian spirit,” Tkachenko said.
– Ella Lee
The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that one serviceman is dead, 27 are missing and 396 were rescued after a fire on the flagship missile cruiser Moskva last week
The statement comes a week after the vessel sank. The Pentagon couldn’t confirm the source of the ship’s damage, but Odesa Gov. Maksym Marchenko said on Telegram that Ukrainian forces struck the guided-missile cruiser with two missiles, USA TODAY previously reported.
Shortly after the incident, the ministry said the entire crew of the ship, which was presumed by the media to be about 500 people, had been rescued. The ministry did not offer an explanation for the contradicting reports.
The sinking of the storied Russian warship Moskva, whose history goes back to days of the Cold War, was a blow to Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine and symbolic defeat for Russia.
– Ella Lee and The Associated Press
A second mass grave was found outside the besieged port city Mariupol, its city council said Friday. The council shared a satellite photo by Planet Labs to Telegram of what it described as a mass grave in the village of Vynohradne, which is east of Mariupol.
The grave is at least 45 meters by 25 meters, or about 147 feet by 82 feet, and could hold the bodies of at least 1,000 Mariupol residents, the city officials said.
“We will see more and more such graves,” Mariupol mayor Vadim Boychenko said in the statement. “This is the greatest genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.”
Earlier this week, satellite photos from Maxar Technologies revealed what appeared to be rows upon rows of more than 200 freshly dug mass graves in the town of Manhush, located to the west of Mariupol. The mayor and city council said that site may hold as many as 9,000 civilians. The discovery of mass graves has led to accusations that the Russians are trying to conceal the slaughter of civilians in the city.
– Ella Lee, Jeanine Santucci and The Associated Press
MASS BURIAL DISCOVERED:Russians accused of burying 9,000 civilians in mass grave near Mariupol: April 21 recap
At least three civilians died and seven more were injured in shelling attacks in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on Friday, as Russian forces continue to roll into the country’s industrial east, the governor of the region said in a Telegram post.
Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko blamed the deaths of “three more peaceful residents” in a small town and two villages on Russian shelling.
Also on Friday, the local prosecutor’s office in the northeastern region of Kharkiv said that charred bodies of two residents were discovered near the city of Izyum that same day. The post accused Russian soldiers of torturing the residents and burning their bodies.
Humanitarian corridors deemed unsafe
A top Ukrainian official said humanitarian corridors would not be open Friday because they were not safe. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk asked people awaiting evacuation from war zones to “be patient” and “hang in there.”
Vereshchuk said Russian forces offered to open a corridor for military surrender but not for an estimated 1,000 civilians sheltering at a steel mill that is the last Ukrainian stronghold in besieged southern city of Mariupol.
Corridors were closed to Ukrainians hoping to evacuate for several days over the last week. Humanitarian corridors, agreed-upon zones of ceasefire to allow civilians safe passage, have been lifelines for many people still in areas of heavy fighting. But Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of ignoring the agreed-upon corridors and continuing dangerous shelling along the routes.
Contributing: The Associated Press