Ukraine urges civilians to flee expected Russian assault in east
Russian forces carried out punishing strikes against key Ukrainian cities on Wednesday, as Ukrainian authorities urged residents of an imperiled eastern region to flee while they still could.
With the fighting showing signs of intensifying in the country’s south and east, Ukrainian officials told residents of the Luhansk region to evacuate before the onslaught. Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Haidai, said Wednesday on Facebook that people were escaping “under the roar of enemy guns.”
In suburbs around the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainian investigators pressed ahead with the grim task of documenting evidence of war crimes in the form of mass graves and mutilated bodies as Ukrainian troops and mine clearers worked to defuse booby traps and explosives left behind by retreating Russian forces.
Moscow continued to brush aside mounting world outrage over the apparent execution-style killings of civilians even as Washington and its Western allies moved to impose sharp new sanctions.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of trying to cover up war crimes in other occupied areas, saying that Moscow is now aware that haphazard efforts in the Kyiv region had left an abundance of evidence behind.
In the southern port city of Mariupol, where municipal authorities say thousands of civilians have died, the City Council claimed Wednesday on social media that Russia was using mobile crematoriums to dispose of corpses.
Russian forces retreat from the city in Ukraine, leaving behind corpses and live mines.
That allegation could not be verified. Mariupol remains in Ukrainian hands, but many people have been killed trying to leave the city.
Russia has furiously denied committing atrocities, saying graphic video and images that have surfaced in recent days are fake.
As foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in Brussels to weigh options to better support Ukraine in its 6-week-old battle against the Russian invaders, the European Union was set to vote on whether to ban Russian coal imports.
At the same time, Britain, no longer in the EU, imposed sweeping new sanctions, including a full asset freeze on the largest Russian bank, a pledge to end Russian coal and oil imports by the end of the year and the targeting of eight more Russian oligarchs.
In Washington, the Biden administration announced similar measures, targeting two major Russian financial institutions as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two daughters and the family of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“I made clear that Russia would pay a severe and immediate price for its atrocities in Bucha,” President Biden said in a tweet.
U.N. votes to suspend Russia from its Human Rights Council and the European Union bans Russian coal as Ukraine’s leader calls for more military aid.
“Together with our allies, we are showing the Russian elite that they cannot wash their hands of the atrocities committed on Putin’s orders,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in announcing her country’s measures.
The EU steps under consideration, with a vote expected Thursday, would be the most stringent yet by the 27-nation bloc since Russia invaded its neighbor Feb. 24. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link to the Irish Parliament, urged lawmakers to persuade EU partners to enact “sanctions that will really stop Russia’s military machine.”
That would include banning imports of Russian oil and natural gas, a drastic step to which the bloc is beginning to signal openness. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said Wednesday that such a move, despite its disruptiveness, probably would have to occur “sooner or later.”
Although Western leaders have voiced concerns about the Ukraine war spilling over into NATO territory, the alliance said it was prepared for a protracted conflict near its eastern flank.
“The war can end now” if Putin withdraws his forces, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said as foreign ministers from alliance nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, began consultations in Brussels. But the fighting could also go on for “many months, even many years,” Stoltenberg said.
German officials say their economy would spiral into recession if they stop purchasing Russian energy.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that it’s “impossible” to know how long the war in Ukraine will continue if not ended through diplomacy.
“The fact that [Putin] is going to concentrate in a smaller geographic area certainly presents the possibility that the violence will continue,” Kirby said. “It could even intensify in that part of Ukraine.”
In Ukraine, Russia has clear military superiority yet has been unable to seize Kyiv or capture and hold major cities. But its forces have devastated parts of Ukraine with long-range missile and artillery attacks, and evidence continues to emerge of atrocities against civilians in areas previously held by Russian troops.
In an overnight video address broadcast in Ukraine, Zelensky warned compatriots that more hardships lay ahead. He has made increasingly desperate pleas for more Western help, including a scorching speech Tuesday to the United Nations Security Council in which he questioned why the world body even exists if it is helpless in the face of an attack on a sovereign country.
“We don’t have a choice — the fate of our land and of our people is being decided,” Zelensky said in his overnight address. “We know what we are fighting for — and we will do everything to win.”
Mariupol and the northeastern metropolis of Kharkiv — battered by almost daily bombardment — were again prime Russian targets on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials said. Putin’s forces for weeks have besieged Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, whose capture would help Moscow create a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Putin’s war relies on an ultranationalist ideology pushed by far-right Russian thinkers who see Ukrainian nationhood as a fiction.
Another principal target has been the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv, where dozens died last week when a missile strike blasted a gaping hole in a government building. The city was hit again Wednesday.
Conditions are increasingly desperate in Mariupol, where tens of thousands of people have been under heavy bombardment, lacking food, water, power and medicine. Ukrainian officials said more than 500 people made it out of Mariupol on Wednesday to the relative safety of the city of Zaporizhzhia.
“The humanitarian situation in the city is worsening,” an assessment by British military intelligence said Wednesday, noting that the cutoff of humanitarian access was probably a tactic “to pressure defenders to surrender.”
While Mariupol’s ordeal has taken place largely out of the world’s sight, Bucha, outside Kyiv, has become an international byword for Ukraine’s suffering after the horrors of its occupation by Russian troops came to light in recent days. On Wednesday, Pope Francis pointed sorrowfully to the town’s plight as a symbol of why the world must support Ukraine.
Welcoming a small group of Ukrainian children at his general audience at the Vatican, the pontiff called for prayers for the country as a whole and for “victims whose innocent blood cries up to the sky.”
Francis then kissed a grimy, bedraggled Ukrainian flag that he said had been brought from Bucha.
Russia’s diplomatic isolation over alleged war crimes deepened Wednesday as Greece became the latest European country to join in the expulsion of Russian diplomats. The government in Athens said a dozen members of embassy or consular staff had been asked to leave, joining what has become a tally of hundreds of Russian diplomats across the EU who have been informed that they are no longer welcome.
In another sign of diplomatic tensions, Ukraine’s ambassador was summoned Wednesday by Hungary’s Foreign Ministry after days of feuding between Prime Minister Viktor Orban — considered Putin’s closest friend in the European Union — and Zelensky. Orban won a landslide reelection victory Sunday.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wrote on Facebook that Orban’s government condemns “military aggression” and supports Ukrainian sovereignty, but added that “this is not our war.” Hungary has refused to join other EU countries in providing weapons to Ukraine or allowing arms to be sent to Ukraine via its territory.
Hungary’s tensions with the EU were underscored Wednesday when Orban, speaking to reporters in Budapest, the capital, declared his willingness to pay the country’s energy bills to Russia in rubles, as the Kremlin has demanded. The EU has refused to do so.
Amid the widening repercussions of the war — economic disruptions and threats to the world food supply — another hazard has emerged: naval mines drifting outside the conflict zone.
Officials from Turkey said Wednesday that for the third time, its military had detected a mine drifting in the Black Sea and was preparing to deactivate it. An earlier episode caused the closure of the Bosporus Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways.
McDonnell reported from Kyiv, King from Budapest and Lee from Los Angeles.
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