Russian military forces escalated attacks on civilian areas of Ukraine’s largest cities Wednesday as the nation’s leaders pledged to repel the invaders and the citizenry joined the military effort to defend their battered country.
Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly voted 141-5, with 35 abstentions, to demand Russia halt the war. The vote came after the 193-member assembly convened its first emergency session in a quarter century.
Also Wednesday, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into whether Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have committed war crimes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a televised address to the nation one week into the hostilities, rallied his people and praised them for their resolve.
“During this time, we have truly become one,” Zelenskyy said. “We forgave each other. We started loving each other. We help each other. We are worried for each other.”
Russian forces appear to have gained their first major prize by taking control of Kherson, a port city of almost 300,000 in southern Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s office said the fighting in Kherson continued, but Mayor Igor Kolykhaev said there were no Ukrainian forces left.
Outside Kyiv, an enormous Russian military convoy — estimated at 40 miles — continues to encounter strong Ukrainian resistance and supply problems, stalling its progress toward the capital city.
In the besieged northeastern city of Kharkiv, Mayor Igor Terekhov said the unrelenting assault has caused “massive destruction.” A rocket strike hit the regional police headquarters, killing four people and wounding several others, Ukraine Emergency Services said.
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Food, medicine and other supplies were being distributed at central locations and by trucks rolling through the city of 1.5 million residents, the mayor said. Efforts were underway to provide heat to lost utilities in the bombing as temperatures dip toward freezing.
“Kharkiv is holding on and will hold on,” Terekhov said on Ukrainian TV. “Today the main goal of our enemy is to sow panic and devastation, but Kharkiv will always stand.”
In Melitopol, a city of 150,000 people in the southeast, thousands of people took to the streets to stop the Russian occupation of the city, the government said.
►U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will leave Thursday on a trip of six European countries, five of them in Russia’s periphery — Poland, Moldova and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Blinken will first stop in Belgium for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
►The Swedish Armed Forces said four Russian fighter jets violated Sweden’s airspace over the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, briefly flying over the area east of the island of Gotland. The European Union, which Sweden belongs to, banned Russian aircraft from its airspace over the invasion of Ukraine.
►The U.N. human rights office reported 136 civilian deaths, but the true toll was likely much higher. Ukrainian emergency services, meanwhile, say more than 2,000 Ukrainian civilians have died. Observers say Russian troops have killed hundreds of civilians, including more than a dozen children.
►The Associated Press, citing a senior Western intelligence official, estimated that 5,000 Russian soldiers had been captured or killed in the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II. Zelenskyy estimated the Russian death toll at 6,000.
►Oil prices soared above $100, to their highest level since 2014, and investors shifted more money out of stocks and into ultra-safe U.S. government bonds as Russia stepped up its war on Ukraine.
Urged by a coalition of 38 countries led by the U.K., the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor opened an investigation Wednesday into possible war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Ukraine dating back to 2013, but also covering the current conflict sparked by Russia’s invasion.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan was able to proceed directly to an investigation without the need of judicial approval after receiving a state party referral from the largest coalition of countries in ICC history.
“Russia’s use of indiscriminate force against innocent civilians, in its illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, amounts to war crimes, for which the (President Vladimir) Putin regime must be held accountable,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement.
The release also quoted Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as saying: “An investigation by the International Criminal Court into Russia’s barbaric acts is urgently needed and it is right that those responsible are held to account. The UK will work closely with allies to ensure justice is done.”
— Josh Meyer
Amid conflicting reports about whether the southern port city of Kherson has been taken over by the Russians, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said fighting is still ongoing, adding that it could not comment further while the battle was being waged.
However, Russian officials said they’re in “complete control,” and Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhaev made it sound like the battle is over, saying Russian soldiers came into the city administration building. Kolykhaev said he asked them not to shoot civilians and to allow them to gather up the bodies from the streets.
“I simply asked them not to shoot at people,” Kolykhaev said in a statement. “We don’t have any Ukrainian forces in the city, only civilians and people here who want to LIVE.”
The United Nations General Assembly voted 141 to 5 to demand Russia halt the war. China was among 35 countries that abstained. Belarus and North Korea were among Russia’s supporters, along with Syria and Eritrea. Longtime allies China, Cuba and Venezuela abstained.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said after the vote that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine must be respected in line with the U.N .Charter. He said the “brutal effects” of the conflict on Ukrainians were plain to see – and that the situation would get much worse.
He also said the U.N. appeal for humanitarian aid was met with record generosity that will fund delivery of vital medical and health supplies, food, drinking water, shelter and protection.
“The message of the General Assembly is loud and clear. End hostilities in Ukraine now,” Guterres said. “Silence the guns now. Open the door to dialogue and diplomacy now.”
Last week Moscow vetoed a similar resolution before the U.N. Security Council.
USA TODAY FACT CHECK ROUNDUP:What’s true and what’s false about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Justice Department to target oligarchs who support Putin
The U.S. is trying to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin from a number of angles, and one of them is his financial support.
The Justice Department on Wednesday announced a special task force to go after the assets of billionaire oligarchs who support Putin and benefit from his regime.
President Joe Biden zeroed in on Russian financial and political elites in his State of the Union address Tuesday, saying: “Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: ‘No more.’
“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement the primary goal of the task force will be to enforce the sweeping sanctions and restrictions the U.S. and its allies and partners have imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
— Josh Meyer
The office of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told The Associated Press that a missile hit Wednesday in central Kyiv between the Southern Railway station and the Ibis hotel, an area near Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. It was not known how much damage the strike caused and whether there were casualties.
The Southern Railway station is a major part of the main passenger rail complex that thousands have used to flee the war over the past week. Two stations are connected by an overhead corridor that crosses over about a dozen tracks.
“Russian terrorists launched an air strike on the South Railway Station in Kyiv, where thousands of Ukrainian women and children are being evacuated,” the national railway company said.
The U.S. is slapping additional sanctions against Russia and Belarus over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The White House said Wednesday the U.S. will impose stringent export controls on Belarus, which has hosted Russian troops and equipment and has been a Russian staging ground for the attack. The export controls aim to prevent the diversion of items, technologies and software through Russia to Belarus and limit the two countries’ ability to obtain materials they need for the invasion.
The State Department is imposing sanctions that target Russia’s defense sector. Twenty-two Russian defense-related entities will be targeted, including firms that make combat aircraft, infantry fighting vehicles, electronic warfare systems, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles for Russia’s military.
The U.S. also is restricting exports on oil and gas extraction equipment to Russia, which could degrade Moscow’s status as a leading energy supplier, and is targeting entities that have been involved with or supported Russian and Belarusian security services, military and defense sectors.
That will keep the military, aerospace, maritime and high-technology sectors in those countries from obtaining U.S. goods and technology that can be used to support Russian technical maintenance and innovation, the White House said.
– Michael Collins
The massive Russian military convoy remains stalled outside Kyiv, encountering stiff resistance from Ukrainians and continuing shortages of fuel and food, a senior Defense Department official said Wednesday.
The convoy, whose estimated length is 40 miles, is a mix of combat and supply vehicles, said the official who described intelligence estimates on condition of anonymity. There are indications that Ukrainian forces have targeted the convoy with attacks.
The official estimated that 82% of Russia’s combat forces have entered Ukraine, nearly one week into its invasion. That’s up slightly from 80% on Tuesday.
The Russians continue to seek control of Ukraine’s largest cities, including Kyiv and Kharkiv, and have been met with “ferocious” resistance, the official said.
The Russian convoy has made no appreciable progress in the last 24 hours, leaving it about 15 miles from Kyiv’s city center. They continue to face fuel and shortages and appear to be behind schedule, the official said.
Russia has yet to gain control of Ukrainian air space. Meanwhile, U.S. shipments of arms and other supplies has continued to arrive in Ukraine, the official said, declining to say how it was transported.
Russia’s failure thus far to coordinate its air, ground and sea attack has come a surprise, the official said. Ukrainian resistance, supply problems and a risk-averse approach appear to be hindering the Russians.
— Tom Vanden Brook
Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner who turned Chelsea into one of the British Premier League’s top clubs with his massive infusion of money, said he will sell the soccer team and donate the net proceeds to victims of the war in Ukraine.
Abramovich had been looking for a way to relinquish control of the club while retaining ownership, but a week into Russia’s invasion, pressure was growing on the British government to include him among the wealthy Russians to be targeted in sanctions.
Abramovich said in a statement that it pained him to part with Chelsea, but was making the decision “in the best interest of the Club, the fans, the employees, as well as the Club’s sponsors and partners.”
He also said gains from the sale would be used to set up a charitable foundation. “The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine. This includes providing critical funds towards the urgent and immediate needs of victims, as well as supporting the long-term work of recovery.”
Russia’s war on Ukraine has rattled many wealthy Russians at home and around the world who suddenly face sanctions that could jeopardize their jetset lifestyles. President Joe Biden, in Tuesday’s State of the Union, warned that “we are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
Alexei Mordashov, a steel magnate and Russia’s richest man, has been blacklisted by the European Union. Mordashov said he doesn’t see how his sanctions will help settle the “dreadful conflict” in Ukraine, according to his statement to TASS, a Russian news agency.
“I have absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of the current geopolitical tension,” Mordashov said Monday. “I do not understand why the EU has imposed sanctions on me.”
Metals mogul Oleg Deripaska, Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman and banker Oleg Tinkov urged an end to the war.
London’s Evening Standard newspaper published a front-page, anti-war statement from its Russia-born owner, Evgeny Lebedev, this week. “As a Russian citizen I plead with you to stop Russians killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters,” Lebedev said. “As a British citizen I ask you to save Europe from war.”
– Gabriela Miranda
U.S. officials say Russian forces have grown increasingly frustrated by Ukrainian resistance, but they have warned that Moscow’s military superiority will likely limit Ukraine’s ability to fight back over time. Ukrainians are nonetheless still finding ways big and small to resist Russian President Vladimir Putin any way they can.
“Freedom is above all for us,” said Oleksandr Rybitskyi, 27. On Monday, he detained three Russian agents masquerading as Ukrainians in his city, which he didn’t want to identify for fear of drawing attention to it. “I help maintain order.”
In the western city of Lviv, dozens of volunteers lined up at the library to help shred old shirts, sheets and other cloth into long strips, to be braided into camouflage coverage for troops on the frontlines.
“We don’t want to spend all day running back and forth to a bunker, waiting for the worst,” said Iryna Bidna, 24.
– Karina Zaiets and Katelyn Ferral
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the actor turned wartime president, has earned international praise for his viral speeches from the streets of war-battered Kyiv while boosting morale among Ukrainians on the ground.
“Take care of your brothers in arms. I admire you,” Zelenskyy said in a speech Wednesday. “The whole world admires you, from Hollywood stars to politicians. Today, you Ukrainians are a symbol of invincibility. A symbol that people in any country can become the best people on Earth at any moment.”
He chided the Russians targeting major cities such as Borodyanka, Kharkiv and Kyiv, saying the attacks were meant to “erase our country. Erase us all.” Zelenskyy said more than 6,000 Russian troops had died in the first six days of fighting, according to the Ukrainian military’s count.
“To get what? To get Ukraine? It is impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy reiterated Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union, a move EU officials have praised. Ukraine formally signed an accelerated application to join the bloc days after Russia’s invasion of the country began.
– Matthew Brown
Twitter will ban the accounts of Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik in Europe after sanctions from European Union officials targeted Russian state media for spreading disinformation. Twitter joins other social media giants such as TikTok, YouTube and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, in restricting access to Russian state media. Apple, Google and Microsoft pulled RT apps from their platforms in Europe.
RT and Sputnik have been accused of spreading false information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Broadcasters in Europe including France, Germany and the United Kingdom have banned RT from the airwaves. The Kremlin has threatened to retaliate on Western media outlets operating in Russia should Russian-state media continue to be blocked.
– Matthew Brown
The humanitarian situation is worsening in the region. A U.N. refugee agency said more than 847,000 people have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries since the invasion began, a number that could surpass 1 million within days.
Shabia Mantoo, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the situation “looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.”
The vast majority of those leaving Ukraine are women and children. An order from Ukraine’s government prohibits men 18- to 60-years-old from leaving the country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that another world war would be “nuclear and destructive” for all parties, and he condemned Western sanctions on the Kremlin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine. Lavrov, in an interview with Al-Jazeera News, claimed Russia would face “real danger” should Ukraine acquire nuclear weapons; Ukraine has not attempted to acquire nuclear weapons and Russia has provided no evidence to support its claims to the contrary.
Putin over the weekend ordered the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal to be on heightened alert, a provocative step that officials in the Biden administration and NATO allies called reckless. Military aid to Ukraine and more rounds of sanctions, however, did not waver after the escalation.
Lavrov said that while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government had been prepared for the series of stringent economic sanctions levied at Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, they had been caught off-guard by sanctions on athletes and personnel.
– Matthew Brown
The Ukrainian government raised $270 million in war bonds after it began issuing the assets to fund its defense of the country from Russian invasion. Ukraine’s central bank enacted capital controls amid the Russian invasion, making it difficult for foreign investors to participate in the program. That hasn’t stopped many international and local investors from buying the bonds, according to Ukraine’s finance ministry.
“The proceeds from the bonds will be used to meet the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and to ensure the uninterrupted provision of the state’s financial needs under the war,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance tweeted.
The Ukrainian government continues to lobby for stricter sanctions on Russian financial institutions and businesses. Western sanctions on Russia have so far caused the ruble to plummet in value, while everyday Russians and economic elites rush to shield their wealth from financial crisis.
– Matthew Brown
Vice President Kamala Harris reiterated that U.S. troops will not fight Russians in Ukraine as the Kremlin continues its advance. Appearing on NBC News Wednesday morning, Harris also said it would be “irresponsible” to engage in nuclear escalation after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had put the country’s nuclear arsenal on alert.
“Our position is we are not going to contribute to an escalation in that direction and we have no intention of changing our posture,” Harris told NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie.
Harris made the rounds Wednesday across several network morning shows.
“We are not going to put U.S, troops in Ukraine to fight Russians on the ground or in the air, but we are firm in our preparedness to defend our allies,” she said, echoing President Joe Biden’s vow to defend “every inch of NATO territory.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but the U.S. has sent troops to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.
– Rick Rouan
Russian negotiators are ready to resume talks with Ukrainian officials but cannot “predict whether Ukrainian negotiators will show up or not,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
“Let’s hope this happens,” Peskov said. “Ours will be there and ready.”
Peskov said Putin’s culture adviser Vladimir Medinsky remains the main negotiator for Russia. Talks held Monday near the Belarus-Ukraine border produced no breakthrough, though the two sides agreed to meet again. It was not clear when talks would continue.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has previously accused the Kremlin of trying to force him into concessions by intensifying the invasion.
“Fair negotiations can occur when one side does not hit the other side with rocket artillery at the very moment of negotiations,” he said.
– John Bacon
World champion biathlete Dmytro Pidruchnyi, who last month was competing at the Winter Olympics for Ukraine, has joined his nation’s military. He posted a photo on Instagram of himself in uniform, and the post drew more than 7,300 “likes” and many comments of support.
“I’m grateful to everyone who texts me and worries about my family and to those who support and help Ukraine,” Pidruchnyi wrote. “I’m currently in my hometown Ternopil serving in the National Guard of Ukraine. This photo was taken during air alarm.”
In another post, Pidruchnyi asks for donations for the Ukraine army and for moral support.
“Don’t tell me that sport is not related to the politics,” he said. “IT IS RELATED!! when the soldiers and civilians of my Motherland are dying while you are reading this.”
– John Bacon
President Joe Biden hailed the united response of the U.S. and Western allies against Russian President Vladimir Putin during his State of the Union address Tuesday night as Russia continues its war in Ukraine.
Biden called the attack “premeditated and totally unprovoked,” adding that Putin thought he could divide the world. “But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united,” Biden said. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been.”
Biden said the U.S. and western allies are enforcing “powerful economic sanctions,” including cutting off Russia’s largest banks from international financial systems, preventing Russia’s central bank from shoring up the Russian ruble and “making Putin’s $260 billion war fund worthless.”
He announced the U.S. is closing off airspace to all Russian flights, joining a growing number of countries around the world that have made similar moves in recent days. Biden also said he is working with 30 countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world to ease the impact of the war in Ukraine on energy markets.
– Joey Garrison
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overnight attack on in civilian areas of Kharkiv as a “war crime.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague said he plans to open an investigation “as rapidly as possible” into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
“Is Vladimir Putin committing a war crime? Yes. It’s very clear,” said David Schwendiman, a former senior Justice Department lawyer and international war crimes prosecutor.
But war crime experts say the post-World War II effort to create an international framework to thwart brutal dictators such as Adolf Hitler is too toothless, caught up in power politics and focused on war crimes already committed to make a difference when it comes to Russia’s invasion. Read more here.
– Josh Meyer
WHAT ARE WAR CRIMES?Ukraine accuses Russia of them, but what exactly constitutes a war crime?
President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that the U.S. is closing its airspace to Russian planes in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. joins a growing list of countries that have announced plans to close their airspace to Russian aircraft in response to the invasion. The European Union took that step Sunday after several European countries, including France, Italy and Denmark, announced the move.
Canada also joined the international move to cut off Russian aircraft.
– Michael Collins and Courtney Subramanian
The war has thrown a global spotlight on Ukraine’s two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Kyiv’s (KEE-ev) population of 2.7 million people would make it the third largest in the U.S. slightly ahead of Chicago. The city covers 330 square miles – bigger than Chicago or New York, about the size of San Diego.
Kyiv is in north-central Ukraine, not far from the borders with Russia and Belarus. Ukrainian and Russian are commonly spoken in the city, among the oldest in Eastern Europe.
Kharkiv (kar-KEEV), 300 miles east of Kyiv and near the Russian border, has a population of about 1.4 million spread over about 135 square miles – about the size of Philadelphia, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
The country of Ukraine has a population of about 45 million people, a few million more than California, and is about 233,000 square miles – a bit smaller than Texas.
– John Bacon
Contributing: Kate Gutman, USA TODAY; The Associated Press