Russia’s onslaught continues amid optimism over talks
Kyiv: Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting.
The airstrike ripped apart the center of the once-elegant building, where hundreds of civilians had been living since their homes had been destroyed in the fighting, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Many people were buried in the rubble, the statement said, though there was no immediate word on how many had been killed or injured. Satellite imagery from Monday showed the word “CHILDREN” written in Russian in large, white capital letters on the pavement in front of and behind the building, the Maxar space technology company said.
“My heart breaks from what Russia is doing to our people,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address, calling for more sanctions on Russia after the bombing.
The Russian defense ministry denied bombing the theater or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.
In Kyiv, residents huddled in homes and shelters during a citywide curfew that was set to run until Thursday morning, as Russian troops shelled areas in and around the city, including a residential neighborhood 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the presidential palace. A 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.
And 10 people were killed while standing in line for bread in the northern city of Chernihiv, the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office said.
Earlier Wednesday, Zelenskyy went before the U.S. Congress via video and, invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11, pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, saying: “ We need you right now.” U.S. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. is sending an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and drones. He also called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” in his sharpest condemnation of the Russian leader since the invasion began.
International pressure against the Kremlin mounted and its isolation deepened as the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered Russia to stop attacking Ukraine, though there was little hope it would comply. Also, the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, expelled Russia.
While Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital appeared largely stalled, Putin said during a speech Wednesday that the operation was unfolding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans.” He also decried Western sanctions, accusing the West of trying to “squeeze us, to put pressure on us, to turn us into a weak, dependent country.” And he accused Russians who are sympathetic to the West or have adopted Western lifestyles of being a “so-called fifth column” and “national traitors.”
The anti-Western speech came as Russian law enforcement announced the first known criminal cases under a new that allows for prison terms of up to 15 years for posting what the Kremlin deems is false information about the war. Among those charged was Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a Russian-language cookbook author and popular blogger living abroad.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia resumed talks via video on Wednesday, with Zelenskyy adviser Mikhailo Podolyak saying Ukraine was demanding a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and legal security guarantees for Ukraine from several countries.
“This is possible only through direct dialogue” between Zelenskyy and Putin, he tweeted.
An official in Zelenskyy’s office told The Associated Press that the main subject under discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in the two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.
Just before the war, Russia recognized the independence of two regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and extended the borders of those regions to areas Ukraine had continued to hold, including the strategically important port city of Mariupol, which has endured a brutal siege.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine was insisting on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on the signing of a legally binding document with security guarantees for Ukraine. In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral status.
Russia has demanded that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine to the alliance or station forces there.
After Tuesday’s negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic.” Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after Zelenskyy acknowledged Tuesday in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to realize its goal of joining NATO. Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.
Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue.”
“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said on Russian TV. “There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”
Prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough were highly uncertain, however, given the gulf between Ukraine’s demand that the invading forces withdraw completely and Russia’s suspected aim of replacing Kyiv’s Westward-looking government with a pro-Moscow regime.
The fighting has led more than 3 million people to flee Ukraine, by the United Nations’ estimate. The overall death toll remains unknown, though Ukraine has said thousands of civilians have died.
Speaking to Congress, Zelenskyy said Russia “has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death.” But Biden has rejected Zelenskyy’s requests to send warplanes to Ukraine or establish a no-fly zone over the country because of the risk of triggering war between the U.S. and Russia.