By AP, published by CNC News, with files from Reuters and CBC News
Kyiv, Ukraine – The presidents of four countries on Russia’s doorstep visited Ukraine on Wednesday (Apr, 13) in a show of support for the embattled country, after Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to continue his bloody offensive until its “full completion.”
The presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — all Nato countries that worry they may face Russian attack in the future if Ukraine falls — were due to meet Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
In one of the most crucial battles of the war, Russia said more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops had surrendered in the besieged port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holding out in pockets of the city. The information could not be verified.
Russia invaded on Feb. 24 with the goal, according to Western officials, of taking Kyiv, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly regime. In the seven weeks since, the ground advance stalled and Russian forces lost potentially thousands of fighters — and the war has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee, rattled the world economy, threatened global food supplies and shattered Europe’s post-Cold War balance.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “a genocide” for the first time, saying “Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.”
Zelensky applauded Biden’s use of the word, saying “calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil.”
“We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities,” he added in his tweet.
In another tweet on Wednesday, Zelensky again pleaded for Western countries to provide additional weaponry in a video that showed images of the dead on Ukraine’s streets. “Arm Ukraine now to defend freedom,” he said.
Putin defends assault on Ukraine
Nauseda, Estonian President Alar Karis, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Egils Levits of Latvia also plan to discuss investigations into alleged Russian war crimes, including the massacre of civilians. Nauseda said the leaders had visited Borodyanka, one of the towns near Kyiv where evidence of atrocities has been found.
“This is where the dark side of humankind has shown its face,” he wrote on Twitter. “Brutal war crimes committed by the Russian army will not stay unpunished.”
An expert report commissioned by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe found “clear patterns of (international humanitarian law) violations by the Russian forces in their conduct of hostilities.” The report was written by experts selected by Ukraine and published on Wednesday by the Vienna-based organisation that promotes security and human rights.
The report said that there were also violations by Ukraine, but concluded those committed by Russia “are by far larger in scale and nature.”
Ukraine has previously acknowledged that there could be “isolated incidents” of violations and has said it would investigate.
Putin, however, has denied his troops committed atrocities, and on Tuesday said that Moscow “had no other choice” but to invade and that the offensive aimed to protect people in parts of Eastern Ukraine and to “ensure Russia’s own security.” He vowed it would “continue until its full completion and the fulfilment of the tasks that have been set.”
He insisted Russia’s campaign was going as planned despite a major withdrawal after its forces failed to take the capital and suffered significant losses.
Following those setbacks, Russian troops are now gearing up for a major offensive in the eastern Donbas region, where Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014, and where Russia has recognised the separatists’ claims of independence. Military strategists say Moscow believes local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favour its larger, better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to finally turn the tide in its favour.
Battle for Mariupol continues
Britain’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that “an inability to cohere and co-ordinate military activity has hampered Russia’s invasion to date.” Western officials say Russia recently appointed a new top general for the war, Alexander Dvornikov, to try to get a grip on its campaign.
A key piece to that campaign is Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas and which the Russians have been pummelling since nearly the start of the war. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak tweeted that the city’s defenders were short of supplies but were “fighting under the bombs for each metre of the city.”
Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade had surrendered in the city. It was unclear when this occurred or how many forces were still defending Mariupol.
According to the BBC, Aiden Aslin, a British man fighting in the Ukrainian military in Mariupol, called his mother and a friend to say he and his comrades were out of food, ammunition and other supplies and would surrender.
Russian state television on Wednesday broadcast footage that it said was from the port city showing dozens of men in camouflage outfits walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers or in chair holds. One man held a white flag on a staff in one hand and the handle of a stretcher in another. In the background was a tall industrial building with its windows shattered and its roof missing, identified by the broadcaster as the Iliich metalworks.
Another Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych did not comment on the surrender claim, but said in a post on Twitter that elements of the same brigade managed to link up with other Ukrainian forces in the city as a result of a “risky manoeuvre.”
Claims Russia used poisonous substance
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said the country is investigating a claim that a drone dropped a poisonous substance on the city. She said it was possible phosphorus munitions had been used in Mariupol.
Phosphorus munitions are not formally classed as chemical weapons but they cause horrendous burn, and deliberately firing phosphorus munitions into an enclosed space to expose people to fumes could breach the Chemical Weapons Convention, said Marc-Michael Blum, a former laboratory head at the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Although it will be difficult to determine if Russia dropped a poisonous substance on Mariupol, if chemical weapons are being used, they will likely continue to be used and in larger quantities, said former US assistant secretary of defence Andrew Weber.
In Washington, a senior US defence official said the Biden administration was preparing another package of military aid for Ukraine to be announced in the coming days, possibly totalling $750 million US. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans not yet publicly announced.
While Biden used the word “genocide” about Russia’s actions, he said it would be up to lawyers to decide if Russia’s conduct met the international standard for genocide, but said “it sure seems that way to me.”
The United Nations says 2,558 civilians have been wounded since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. A hospital in Lviv is helping to treat civilians arriving from all over the country.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin said it categorically disagreed with Biden’s description of Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide.
“We consider this kind of effort to distort the situation unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters.
War crimes investigation
An International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes is underway in Ukraine, including into atrocities revealed after Moscow’s retreat from the Kyiv area, where Ukrainian authorities say more than 720 people were killed, with 403 bodies found in the town of Bucha alone.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, who visited Bucha, said in a tweet on Wednesday that Ukraine “is a crime scene” and the court must “pierce the fog of war” to determine what has occurred.
Residents in Yahidne, a village near the northern city of Chernihiv, said Russian troops forced them to stay for almost a month in the basement of a school, only allowing them outside to go to the toilet, cook on open fires — and bury those who died in a mass grave.
In one of the rooms, the residents wrote the names of those who perished during the ordeal — the list counted 18 people.
“An old man died near me and then his wife died next,” said resident Valentyna Saroyan. “Then a man died who was lying there, then a woman sitting next to me…. She died as well. Another old man looked so healthy, he was doing exercises, but then he was sitting and fell. That was it.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said humanitarian corridors used to get people out of cities under Russian attack will not operate on Wednesday because of poor security.
Also on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials detained fugitive Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who is both the former leader of a pro-Russian opposition party and a close associate of Putin. Medvedchuk was under house arrest before the war began and disappeared shortly after hostilities broke out.
Top: A woman pulls her bags past houses damaged during fighting in eastern Mariupol on April 8. Photo: Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press
First insert: From left, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Estonian President Alar Karis, Latvian President Egils Levits and Polish President Andrzej Duda stand with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Szmyhal in Kyiv on Wednesday. Photo: Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania/Reuters
Second insert: A woman holds her child as she speaks to a photographer in the basement of a damaged building used as a bomb shelter in Mariupol on April 8. Photo: Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press
Third insert: A firefighter works to extinguish a fire after shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Marienko/The Associated Press
Fourth insert: This satellite image shows a view of port facilities and buildings on fire in western Mariupol on April 9. Photo: Maxar Technologies/The Associated Press
Fifth insert: A resident looks on near a building destroyed in the course of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in Mariupol on April 10. Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Home Page: A woman walks by an armoured vehicle of pro-Russian troops in front of the theatre destroyed last month in Mariupol. Photo: Alexander Ermochenko /Reuters
All photos published by CNC News