A volunteer rests after loading into a truck a plastic bags that contains the corpses of civilians killed by Russian soldiers, in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
KYIV, Ukraine — The presidents of four countries on Russia’s doorstep headed to Kyiv on Wednesday in a show of support for Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to continue his bloody seven-week 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 the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
In one of the most crucial battles of the war, Russia said more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops surrendered in the besieged port of Mariupol. The information could not be verified, and it’s not clear how significant it would be, if true.
Russia invaded on Feb. 24 with the goal, according to Western officials, of taking Kyiv, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly one. 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, threated global food supplies and shattered Europe’s post-Cold War balance.
U.S. 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.”
Zelenskyy 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.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the leaders headed to Ukraine on Wednesday had “a strong message of political support and military assistance.”
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.
Putin has denied his troops committed atrocities, and on Tuesday insisted Russia “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 fulfillment of the tasks that have been set.”
He insisted Russia’s campaign was going as planned despite a major withdrawal and significant losses.
Thwarted in their push toward the capital, 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 recognized the separatists’ claims of independence. Military strategists say Moscow believes local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favor its larger, better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to finally turn the tide in its favor.
Britain’s defense ministry said Wednesday that “an inability to cohere and coordinate 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 besieged and pummeled since nearly the start of the war. Pockets of the city appeared to be still under Ukraine’s control — but it’s not clear how many forces are still defending it.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade had surrendered in the city. It was unclear when the alleged surrenders occurred.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych did not comment on the allegation, 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 maneuver.”″
Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podoliak said on Twitter that the city’s defenders were short of supplies but were “fighting under the bombs for each meter of the city. They make (Russia) pay an exorbitant price.”
Ukrainian forces in Mariupol have alleged that a drone dropped a poisonous substance on the city. The assertion by the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, could not be independently verified. The regiment indicated there were no serious injuries.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Tuesday officials were investigating, and it was possible phosphorus munitions — which cause horrendous burns but are not classed as chemical weapons — had been used in Mariupol, which has been pummeled by weeks of Russian assaults.
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 Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Western officials warned that any use of chemical weapons by Russia would be a serious escalation of the already devastating war. Zelenskyy said that while experts try to determine what the substance might be, “The world must react now.”
In Washington, a senior U.S. defense official said the Biden administration was preparing another package of military aid for Ukraine to be announced in the coming days, possibly totaling $750 million. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans not yet publicly announced.
Biden used the word “genocide” about Russia’s actions during a visit to Iowa. 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.”
Neither he nor his administration announced new consequences for Russia or assistance to Ukraine following the assessment.
An investigation into war crimes is already underway in Ukraine, including into atrocities revealed after Moscow’s retreat from cities and towns around Kyiv.
Zelenskyy said evidence of “inhuman cruelty” toward women and children in Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv continued to surface, including alleged rapes.
More than 720 people were killed in Kyiv suburbs that had been occupied by Russian troops and over 200 were considered missing, the Interior Ministry said early Wednesday.
In Bucha alone, Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said 403 bodies had been found and the toll could rise as minesweepers comb the area.
In the Chernihiv region, villagers said more than 300 people had been trapped for almost a month by the occupying Russian troops in the basement of a school and only allowed outside to go to the toilet or cook on open fires.
Valentyna Saroyan told The Associated Press she saw at least five people die in Yahidne, 140 kilometers (86 miles) north of Kyiv. In one of the rooms, the residents wrote the names of those who perished during the ordeal — the list counted 18 people.
Ukraine’s prosecutor-general’s office said Tuesday it was also looking into events in the Brovary district, which lies to the northeast of the capital. It said the bodies of six civilians were found with gunshot wounds in a basement in the village of Shevchenkove and Russian forces were believed to be responsible.
Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Russian forces fired on a convoy of civilians trying to leave by car from the village of Peremoha in the Brovary district, killing four people including a 13-year-old boy. In another attack near Bucha, five people were killed including two children when a car was fired upon, prosecutors said.
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.
ATHENS - In a ninth year of seeing refugees and migrants coming - first hoping to reach other European countries before borders were closed to them - Greece is dealing with an uptick in the numbers seeking asylum.
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