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US warns Putin may turn to even more brutal tactics as Ukraine thwarts Russian advances

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People examine the damage after shelling of a shopping centre, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Picture: AP

People examine the damage after shelling of a shopping centre, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Picture: AP

A Ukrainian service member inspects a shell crater, as the Russian invasion continues, in a village on the front line in the east Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A Ukrainian service member inspects a shell crater, as the Russian invasion continues, in a village on the front line in the east Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A charred Russian tank is seen, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on the front line in the Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A charred Russian tank is seen, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on the front line in the Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Moscow said Joe Biden calling the Russian president a “war criminal” had pushed bilateral ties to the brink of collapse. Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Moscow said Joe Biden calling the Russian president a “war criminal” had pushed bilateral ties to the brink of collapse. Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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People examine the damage after shelling of a shopping centre, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Picture: AP

Ukrainian forces fought off continuing Russian efforts to occupy Mariupol and claimed to have retaken a strategic suburb of Kyiv, mounting a defense so dogged that it is stoking fears Russia’s Vladimir Putin will escalate the war to new heights.

“Putin’s back is against the wall,” said US President Joe Biden, who is heading to Europe this week to meet with allies.

“And the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ.”

Biden reiterated accusations that Putin is considering resorting to using chemical or biological weapons, though Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US has seen no evidence to suggest that such an escalation is imminent.

The warnings came as attacks continued in and around Kyiv and Mariupol, and people escaped the battered and besieged port city.

The hands of one exhausted Mariupol survivor were shaking as she arrived by train in the western city of Lviv.

“There’s no connection with the world. We couldn’t ask for help," said Julia Krytska, who was helped by volunteers to make it out with her husband and son.

"People don’t even have water there.”

Explosions and bursts of gunfire shook Kyiv, and heavy artillery fire could be heard from the northwest, where Russia has sought to encircle and capture several of the capital's suburban areas.

Earlier, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky warned there was "nothing left" of the city of Mariupol after weeks of Russian bombardment.

Mr Zelensky spoke out as Kyiv appealed to Moscow to allow the evacuation of at least 100,000 people who want to leave the besieged city.

The Indo Daily: 'We took our documents, our clothes and ran' - Inside Ukraine's refugee crisis

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Ukraine has issued increasingly dire warnings about the situation in the encircled southern port city, where officials say residents are without food, medicine, power or running water.

Officials said 300,000 civilians were also running out of food in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, highlighting what an international aid official said was the breakdown of Ukraine's humanitarian system.

"There is nothing left there. Only ruins," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said of Mariupol, which has a peacetime population of 400,000, in a video address to the Italian parliament.

Mr Zelensky held talks with Pope Francis and called on the leader of the Catholic Church to mediate in the conflict, while Germany's finance chief proposed a "Marshall Plan" to help Ukraine rebuild when the war ends.

Meanwhile, the city council said Russian forces had dropped two large bombs on Mariupol but gave no details of casualties or damage. Reuters could not independently verify the report. Russia did not immediately comment on it.

"Once again it is clear that the occupiers are not interested in the city of Mariupol. They want to level it to the ground and make it the ashes of a dead land," the council said.

Russia denies targeting civilians and blames Ukraine for the repeated failure to establish safe passage for civilians out of Mariupol. Ukraine defied an ultimatum for the city to surrender by dawn on Monday as a condition for Russian forces to let civilians leave safely.

"We demand the opening of a humanitarian corridor for civilians," Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Ukrainian television.

She later added: "There are at least 100,000 people who want to leave Mariupol but cannot."

Vereshchuk said that unless a safe corridor was created and buses were allowed in to evacuate them, they would have to walk from 10 to 20 km (six to 12 miles) to reach relative safety - a risky journey if there is no ceasefire.

She and other Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were also preventing humanitarian supplies reaching civilians in Kherson, a city they control.

"Kherson's 300k citizens face a humanitarian catastrophe owing to the Russian army's blockade. Food and medical supplies have almost run out, yet Russia refuses to open humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians," foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.

Russia did not immediately comment on the situation in Kherson.

Mariupol's plight highlights what an international aid official in Ukraine said was the breakdown of the country's humanitarian system.

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A Ukrainian service member inspects a shell crater, as the Russian invasion continues, in a village on the front line in the east Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A Ukrainian service member inspects a shell crater, as the Russian invasion continues, in a village on the front line in the east Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A Ukrainian service member inspects a shell crater, as the Russian invasion continues, in a village on the front line in the east Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

Ahead of this week's European Union summit, Germany and Hungary are putting the brakes on a potential embargo on Russian oil, deepening differences in the bloc over how to further punish Moscow. Germany relies on Russia for about a third of its oil. The Kremlin has warned that such measures would "hit everyone," especially Europeans.

Zelensky said in a tweet that he spoke to the Pope and told him "about the difficult humanitarian situation and the blocking of rescue corridors by Russian troops."

He also invited the Pope to visit Ukraine.

Talks slow

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said peace talks with Ukraine are "going more slowly and less substantively that we would like," reiterating Russia's position that Kyiv is dragging its feet.

Ukraine accuses Russia of negotiating in bad faith and continuing to bombard its cities during the talks. Zelenskiy repeated late Monday that he's prepared to meet Putin, who has said he's not opposed but would only agree once negotiators have made more progress on a deal.

Sanctions

Serbia Denounces Threat for Not Joining Sanctions (10:30 a.m.)

As EU leaders look set to approve yet more sanctions against Russia, Serbia angrily disputed a suggestion from EU member Lithuania that the Balkan state may be punished for refusing to join sanctions against Russia even as Belgrade seeks to join the bloc.

"Threatening Serbia with sanctions unless it imposes sanctions against the Russian Federation is as stupid as it is hypocritical," Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said.

Ukraine criticised Hungary after its foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said EU sanctions on Russian energy imports were a "red line" and Budapest wouldn't support a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace. While Hungary is a member of NATO and the EU, Szijjarto and his prime minister, Viktor Orban, have nurtured close ties with Russia.

Fighting

President Zelensky repeated his assertion that Russian troops were still largely being held back, requiring them to focus on reinforcing existing positions rather than taking new ones.

In a late-night video address, Zelensky said Russia had shelled locations in the Zhytomyr region of northern Ukraine. He accused troops of firing at convoys of civilians evacuating near Zaporizhzhia, a city in the south which has a nuclear power plant now controlled by Russia. Humanitarian corridors designed to allow safe passage of people from conflict areas have struggled to hold in the south, including for the besieged port city of Mariupol.

Russian toll

Russia’s ministry of defence appeared to accidentally reveal that nearly 10,000 of its soldiers have been killed in Ukraine.

The figure was contained in a report on March 20 by the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, which has since been deleted from the paper’s website.

Before it was removed, the article quoted the Russian defence ministry as saying that 9,861 Russian soldiers had been killed, and 16,153 were injured, in more than three weeks of fighting.

Previously, the Russian military had only admitted that around 500 soldiers had been killed.

The article was taken down from the paper’s website and replaced with a version not including casualty numbers.

The newspaper quickly removed the article from its website, describing it as the work of hackers.

Asked about the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on it at Tuesday’s conference call with reporters, referring questions about the military casualties to the defense ministry.

On March 2, the defense ministry reported 498 soldiers had been killed and hasn’t released any casualty numbers since then.

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A charred Russian tank is seen, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on the front line in the Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A charred Russian tank is seen, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on the front line in the Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

A charred Russian tank is seen, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on the front line in the Kyiv region. Picture: Reuters

The apparent new figures were similar to a conservative estimate by US intelligence last week that at least 7,000 Russian soldiers had died up to that point, with up to 21,000 injured.

Ireland

The Irish Government is planning for the potential arrival of 200,000 Ukrainians into the country as the Russian invasion continues.

A Cabinet meeting later on Tuesday will see ministers discuss the crisis in war-torn Ukraine as well as the Irish response.

The Government has already welcomed about 10,000 Ukrainian refugees into the country but is preparing for tens of thousands more.

The number of refugees Ireland expects to take has risen greatly since the start of Russia’s invasion, as nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population have already fled their homes, with more than 3.5million of them already having fled the country.

The 200,000 figure for Ireland is based on the expectation that 2pc of the 10 million people likely set to flee Ukraine could come to the Republic.

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue said on Tuesday that planning is continuing into how to provide adequate accommodation and support for refugees arriving into the country.

"While there isn't the opportunity to put long-term permanent accommodation in place overnight, the best possible arrangements must be put in place to accommodate them to meet their basic needs, to ensure that they are sheltered and looked after, and have access to education and healthcare, and, indeed, employment," he told RTÉ radio.

"So, it's going to be a challenge as we move along."

Chernobyl wildfires

Ukraine’s natural resources minister says wildfires have been extinguished in the area of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is under the control of Russian forces.

The fires have raised concern about the possible release of radiation from the plant, where a 1986 explosion and fire sent radioactive emissions across large parts of Europe.

But Natural Resources Minister Ruslan Strelets said Tuesday that radiation levels in the area are within the norms.

Ukrainian officials had earlier accused Russian forces of deliberately setting the fires or causing them with artillery shelling.

Cancer patients

A group of 20 Ukrainian children with cancer and leukaemia has arrived in Paris as part of a rescue plan coordinated by French First Lady Brigitte Macron and Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska.

The children are accompanied by their parents as they flee the war with Russia. They arrived at Orly airport near the French capital on Monday evening.

Speaking to Le Parisien newspaper in an interview, Zelenska said “when it became clear that it was impossible to treat children with cancer in the bomb shelters, we immediately sought a solution.”

She said some of the evacuated children will remain in Poland, while others are heading to France, Italy, Germany, the United States and Canada.

Zelensky Italy address

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is urging Italy to beef up sanctions against Russia and seize more assets from President Vladimir Putin and his allies as a way of pressuring Moscow into negotiating an end to the war.

Zelensky spoke to the Italian parliament on Tuesday via video from Kyiv, as he has done with other foreign parliaments. Wearing a collared shirt and speaking through an Italian translator, Zelensky told Italian lawmakers that he had just spoken by phone to Pope Francis and that the pontiff had endorsed Ukraine’s right to defend itself.

He said that 117 children have been killed in the war with Russia and that the city of Mariupol has been flattened by the Russian onslaught.

He warned that Europe’s security is at risk if Russia advances and that grain deliveries to the developing world are being jeopardized because Ukraine’s farmers can’t plant crops.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi praised the “heroic” resistance of the Ukrainian people.

Italy wants Ukraine to be part of the EU, Prime Minister Draghi told lawmakers in Rome following the address to parliament by Zelensky via video link.

"We want to draw a path to bring Ukraine closer to Europe," Draghi said. Italy has so far frozen assets worth about €800 million belonging to Russian oligarchs, Draghi added.

Russia rejects cyber-threat

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has rejected U.S. President Joe Biden’s warning that Russia may be planning a cyberattack against the United States.

Asked about Biden’s comments, Peskov said Tuesday that “the Russian Federation, unlike many Western countries including the United States, does not engage in banditry on the state level.”

Biden told a meeting of corporate CEOs on Monday that “evolving intelligence” indicated a cyberattack may be planned. He urged private companies to invest in their own security to counter cyberattacks.

Biden has suggested a cyberattack could be Russia’s response to economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and he also warned Vladirmir Putin may be preparing to deploy chemical and biological weapons.

Referendum

It came as Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainians will be offered a referendum on any “compromises” with Russia if a peace deal is agreed. He insisted his country would sooner be destroyed than bow to Moscow’s ultimatums.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, dashed hopes of an imminent agreement to end the war as the US warned Russia was trying to bomb cities into submission to destroy Ukrainian morale.

“When you talk about certain changes, potentially historic changes...it will go to a referendum,” Mr Zelensky said in an interview with European broadcasters, without specifying how such a vote would be held.

“Our people will have a say and give an answer to formats of compromises,” he said.

Moscow has said the war would end if Kyiv gave up its hopes of joining Nato and recognised Crimea and Ukraine’s separatist republics as Russian territory.

“Ukraine cannot fulfil Russian ultimatums,” Mr Zelensky said, a day after Moscow told authorities in the strategic port city of Mariupol that they must surrender or face a military tribunal.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

“We should be destroyed first, then their ultimatum would be fulfilled,” he added.

He said Moscow wanted Ukraine to “hand over” Mariupol, the capital Kyiv and second city Kharkiv.

Neither the people of those cities nor he, “as president, can do this,” he said.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, yesterday ruled out a meeting between the Russian president and his Ukrainian counterpart until Kyiv “did its homework on the negotiations and agreed their results”.

He also claimed that any ceasefire would be abused by the Ukrainian military so that they could regroup.

“It would be used to continue attacks on the Russian military,” he said.

Since the start of the war, officials from Russia and Ukraine have met several times in Belarus.

But Mr Peskov said there had been “no substantial movement”, despite recent reports that the countries were moving closer to an agreement.

As the apparent scale of Russian losses emerged, its foreign ministry said it had summoned John Sullivan, the US ambassador.

Moscow said it told Mr Sullivan that Joe Biden calling Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” had pushed bilateral ties to the brink of collapse.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesman said: “[Statements] from the American president, unworthy of a statesman of such high rank, put Russian-American relations on the verge of rupture.”

The US State Department did not confirm that the ambassador had been summoned.

Indiscriminate shelling

Ukraine's military warned the public on Tuesday of more indiscriminate Russian shelling of critical infrastructure as U.S. President Joe Biden issued one of his strongest warnings yet that Russia is considering using chemical weapons.

Russian troops have failed to capture any major Ukrainian city more than four weeks into their invasion, and increasingly are resorting to massive destruction of residential areas with air strikes, long-range missiles and artillery.

The southern port of Mariupol has become a focal point of Russia's assault and is largely in ruins with bodies on the streets but attacks were also reported to have intensified on the second city of Kharkiv on Monday.

Russian forces were expected to continue to attack critical infrastructure with "high-precision weapons and indiscriminate munitions", Ukraine's armed forces said in a statement.

Warning over biological weapons

Biden, without citing evidence, said Russia's false accusations that Ukraine had biological and chemical weapons illustrated that President Vladimir Putin's "back was against the wall" and he was considering using such weapons.

"Now he's talking about new false flags he's setting up including, asserting that we in America have biological as well as chemical weapons in Europe, simply not true," Biden said at a business event.

"They are also suggesting that Ukraine has biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. That's a clear sign he's considering using both of those."

The Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden also told businesses to be alert for cyber attacks by Russia. "It's part of Russia's playbook," he said in a statement.

The United States and its allies have previously accused Russia of spreading an unproven claim that Ukraine had a biological weapons programme as a possible prelude to using such weapons but Biden's remarks on Monday were some of his strongest on the subject.

Russia says it does not attack civilians although the devastation wrought on Ukrainian towns such as Mariupol and Kharkiv are reminiscent of previous Russian assaults on cities in Chechnya and Syria.

Putin calls the war, the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two, a "special military operation" to disarm Ukraine and protect it from "Nazis". The West calls that a false pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.

Diplomatic pressure

Biden is due to travel to Europe this week for meetings with allied leaders to discuss tighter sanctions on Russia, on top of the unprecedented financial penalties already announced. Ahead of the trip he discussed Russia's "brutal" tactics in a call with European leaders on Monday, the White House said.

Russia's siege and bombardment of Mariupol, which European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called "a massive war crime", is increasing pressure for action.

But EU foreign ministers on Monday disagreed on whether and how to include energy in sanctions, with Germany saying the bloc was too dependent on Russian oil to impose an embargo.

Biden singled out India for being "somewhat shaky" in acting against Russia, its biggest supplier of military hardware, but praised the other members of the Quad group, Australia and Japan.

India has urged an end to the violence in Ukraine but has abstained from voting against its old Cold War ally Russia.

China, which has also declined to condemn Russia's assault, and its ally, Pakistan, shared concern about the "spillover effects of unilateral sanctions" on Russia, the Chinese foreign ministry said after a meeting of the neighbours' foreign ministers.

They called for a ceasefire and a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

No surrender

The conflict has driven almost a quarter of Ukraine's 44 million people from their homes, and Germany said the number could reach as high as 10 million in coming weeks.

Ukraine on Monday rejected a Russian demand to stop defending Mariupol.

People have been forced to drink water from radiators and kill pets for food in the besieged city of Mariupol, a Ukrainian MP said.

Dmytro Gurin said that Vladimir Putin's "goal is to start hunger".

He said the 250,000 people that remain in the city are living in damaged buildings and basements.

“People live in half destroyed buildings or basements. People drink water from the radiator system. We already have information that people start killing their animals, like cats, dogs for food," he said.

“The goal of Putin is to start hunger in Mariupol because he needs this leverage for diplomatic processes.”

A part of Mariupol now held by Russian forces, reached by Reuters on Sunday, was an eerie wasteland. Several bodies wrapped in blankets lay by a road. Windows were blasted out and walls were charred black. People who came out of basements sat on benches amid the debris, bundled up in coats.

About 8,000 were evacuated on Monday from towns and cities under fire, including about 3,000 from Mariupol, through seven humanitarian corridors, Ukraine's deputy prime minister said.

The governor of the Zaporizhzhia region said buses evacuating civilians from front-line areas were hit by shelling on Monday and four children were wounded.

The eastern cities of Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv have also been hard hit.

Among the dead in Kharkiv is Boris Romanchenko, a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor whose flat was shelled by Russian forces last week.

"Please think about how many things he has come through," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late on Monday.

"With each day of this war, it becomes more obvious what denazification means to them."

On Monday night, a witness in Kharkiv said she saw people on roofs of apartment buildings dropping grenades or similar ordnance onto the streets.

A second witness, outside the city, reported hearing more intense explosions than on any day since Russian troops began attacking last month.

Reuters could not immediately verify the accounts.

Ukrainian officials hope that Russia will negotiate a withdrawal. Both sides hinted last week at progress in talks on a formula that would include some kind of neutrality for Ukraine, though details were scarce.

 


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