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In Ukraine, cease-fire deals break down, Kyiv imperiled by Russian forces – The Washington Post

“The current leadership needs to understand that if they continue doing what they are doing, they risk the future of Ukrainian statehood,” Putin said. “If that happens, they will have to be blamed for that.”

Against the incongruous backdrop of a meeting with female airline employees, during which Putin cracked jokes, the Russian leader escalated his rhetoric as the crisis entered its ninth day. He compared international sanctions against Moscow to a “declaration of war” and said that any country who participated in a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be considered “participants in a military conflict.”

Putin’s comments signaled that he had little intention of halting his campaign to seize huge portions of the country and remove its government. Negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian teams meeting in Belarus have produced no tangible results.

Citizens fled cities amid shelling as local officials warned of a humanitarian catastrophe for those who remained. And U.S. and European officials have quietly begun making plans to help establish and support a Ukrainian government in exile, assuming that Russian military forces, which have faced noticeable setbacks, will ultimately prevail.

Speaking in Poland at a border crossing with Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Putin has made a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake in many ways, but it starts with the proposition that somehow Ukraine doesn’t exist as an independent country. What Ukrainians are showing every single day is, of course, exactly the opposite.”

“We’re in it with Ukraine one way or another,” Blinken said. “The short-run, the medium-run, the long-run. We’re in this together. We will succeed together. Ukraine is going to prevail.”

On March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that harsh international sanctions against Russia were like a ‘declaration of war.’ (Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

During a virtual a meeting with members of Congress, Zelensky sought additional U.S. help to fend off the Russian invasion by asking for more fighter jets and a ban on the purchase of Russian oil. The White House on Friday said it was considering the latter measure.

In a call over Zoom attended by more than 280 lawmakers, Zelensky described “the urgent need” for more military support and humanitarian aid. The call came after the Biden administration on Thursday requested $10 billion in aid for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian president’s message was “close the skies or gives us planes,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement after the call, which lasted just under an hour.

In comments afterward, lawmakers seemed genuinely moved to step up aid. But the U.S. and European officials have steadfastly resisted calls to create a no-fly zone, worried about the potential for direct conflict with Russia.

“The only way to actually implement something like a no-fly zone is to send NATO planes into Ukrainian airspace and to shoot down Russian planes, and that could lead to a full-fledged war in Europe,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

In the face of U.S. reluctance, Zelensky asked lawmakers for help with another way to limit the damage from Russia’s devastating aerial raids: more planes for Ukraine.

“His main ask was for the U.S. to allow Poland and Romania to transfer Soviet era jets to #Ukraine, and for the U.S. to compensate by giving more advanced planes to those two NATO allies,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said in a Twitter post.

Ukraine and Russia are aiming to meet Monday for another round of talks, Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said.

Biden and Zelensky talked for about 30 minutes on Saturday evening, during which the U.S. president reiterated that the administration “is surging security, humanitarian and economic assistance to Ukraine and is working closely with Congress to secure additional funding.”

Evacuations continued in Kyiv and air raid sirens sounded repeatedly as Ukraine’s defense minister warned of a gathering threat to the capital from approaching columns of Russian troops.

Ukrainian officials accused Russia of violating temporary truce agreements in the southern cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha. In Mariupol, where the mayor on Friday warned that the coastal city was facing a “humanitarian catastrophe,” the city council on Saturday advised citizens to evacuate, before reversing course and urging people to hunker down because, they said, Russian forces continued to shell the city.


Proposed evacuation corridor

Separatist-

controlled

area

Zaporizhzhia

Russian-held areas

and troop movement

Nikolskoye

Sea of Azov

Control areas as of March 4

Sources: Institute for the Study of War; Post reporting

Dylan Moriarty/THE WASHINGTON POST

Proposed evacuation corridor

Separatist-

controlled

area

Zaporizhzhia

Russian-held areas

and troop movement

Nikolskoye

Sea of Azov

Control areas as of March 4

Sources: Institute for the Study of War; Post reporting

Dylan Moriarty/THE WASHINGTON POST

Proposed evacuation corridor

Separatist-

controlled

area

Zaporizhzhia

Nikolskoye

Russian-held areas

and troop movement

Sea of Azov

Control areas as of March 4

Sources: Institute for the Study of War; Post reporting

Dylan Moriarty/THE WASHINGTON POST

Britain’s Defense Ministry accused Russia of proposing a cease-fire in Mariupol to “deflect international condemnation” and give its forces time to reset.

“By accusing Ukraine of breaking the agreement, Russia is likely seeking to shift responsibility for current and future civilian casualties in the city,” the ministry said in a statement.

Volnovakha, a city of about 21,000, also endured “heavy artillery” assaults during the cease-fire, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said. Russia denied breaking the truce, accusing Ukraine of using civilians as “human shields.”

Also Saturday, a powerful explosion struck a residential area in Bila Tserkva, 50 miles south of Kyiv. Local officials said they suspected a Russian rocket attack. Several people were injured, but there were no immediate reports of fatalities.

That city of around 200,000 people — with the same population as Des Moines, Iowa — would be a strategic prize in any Russian effort to choke off Kyiv, but for the moment it remained at the mouth of one of the few relatively safe passages in and out of the capital. Streams of people fleeing Kyiv clogged checkpoints as they made their long drive away from the shelling.

Bila Tserkva is also a hub for humanitarian aid and military deliveries into the capital and further east. Much of the energy of the military volunteers and city officials was focused on getting the right materials to the places they are needed.

The U.N. human rights office said Friday that at least 331 civilians have been killed during the conflict, while Ukraine’s emergency services put the number of civilian fatalities much higher, at more than 2,000. Nearly 1.3 million people have been evacuated by train since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Oleksandr Kamyshin, chairman of Ukrainian Railways, said Saturday.

The International Monetary Fund warned that Ukraine will suffer “devastating” economic damage if Russia’s invasion of the country continues to escalate. The Russian bombardment is also inflicting a “substantial” economic toll because numerous airports, sea ports, roads and bridges have been closed, damaged or destroyed, the IMF noted in a news release.

“While the situation remains highly fluid and the outlook is subject to extraordinary uncertainty, the economic consequences are already very serious,” the agency wrote. “While it is very difficult to assess financing needs precisely at this stage, it is already clear that Ukraine will face significant recovery and reconstruction costs.”

The IMF said Ukraine has requested more than $1.4 billion of emergency financing.

As Russia tries to advance on several fronts, pummeling cities and towns with heavy weapons, Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov warned Saturday in a Facebook post that “the main effort of the invaders has been focused on encircling Kyiv.” The city’s defenders, he added, “continue to fight back the enemy’s offensive and inflict losses up on its offensive groupings.”

An outgunned but resilient Ukrainian military is adopting a two-prong strategy in the face of a flawed but fierce Russian assault, relying on hit-and-run tactics and the fortification of major cities as Putin’s campaign enters a more perilous phase, military experts said.

The odds remain stacked against Ukraine. Russian forces have begun employing siege tactics, aiming to flatten civilian infrastructure and exact maximum punishment for Ukrainian resistance. While Russia has mostly failed, so far, to seize major cities and effectively supply its soldiers with food and fuel, the Pentagon believes it is probable that Russia will regroup and press its massive advantage in firepower.

The main threat to Kyiv appears to be a massive Russian convoy, about 40 miles long, approaching Kyiv from the west and believed to be about 20 miles from the capital and stuck near a cargo airport.

Western officials have said the convoy has stalled because of resistance from Ukrainian troops as well as logistical setbacks, including shortages of fuel. But military analysts have not ruled out tactical reasons for the delay in moving the convoy forward, as Moscow waits for its forces to advance other fronts.

In a media briefing earlier this week, John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Ukrainian resistance and “logistical and sustainment” challenges had hampered the convoy’s progress. But the United States also believed that “the Russians are deliberately, actually, regrouping themselves and reassessing the progress that they have not made and how to make up for lost time.”

Can Kasapoglu, director of the Security and Defense Studies Program at EDAM, a Turkish think tank, said the convoy’s delay was partially the result of Russia’s effort to shift away from a failed battle plan that had initially aimed at quickly decapitating the Ukrainian government with a “hybrid” military force — of a type Moscow had previously used, including during its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Russian forces are trying to transition to a “Soviet-type heavy fire power and armor-focused operations,” he said. But, he said, “the transition to a massive invasion is not easy, especially for logistics.” In addition, Russian trucks had been targeted by Ukrainian forces.

A briefing from the Institute for the Study of War on Friday concluded that while the convoy’s progress from the west remained slow, “Russian troops have moved more rapidly from the east and are arriving in the capital’s outskirts on the Sumy axis,” referring to a city about 180 miles east of Kyiv.

The Sumy axis “is currently the most successful and dangerous Russian avenue of advance on Kyiv,” the authors said, adding that the Russian forces had likely proceeded along terrain that is “flat and sparsely populated, offering few good defensive positions.” As the Russians drew nearer to Kyiv, they “may begin to encounter the sorts of challenges that have slowed their comrades’ advances on the west bank of the Dnipro, depending on the strength and capability of Ukrainian forces attempting to defend on the east,” referring to the river that divides Kyiv.

As Putin railed against sanctions, Visa and Mastercard announced they would suspend their operations in Russia, following a plea from Zelensky.

“We are compelled to act following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and the unacceptable events that we have witnessed,” Al Kelly, chairman and chief executive officer of Visa, said in a statement. “This war and the ongoing threat to peace and stability demand we respond in line with our values.”

In its statement, Mastercard noted the “unprecedented nature of the current conflict and the uncertain economic environment.”

As the crisis deepened, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin in Moscow for about three hours in the Kremlin, an Israeli official said. The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Eyal Hulata, also attended, along with Zeev Elkin, Israel’s minister of housing and construction, who is from Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine that has come under intense Russian shelling.

Bennett spoke with Putin about the impact of the conflict on Israelis and Jewish communities, the official said.

Israel has said it will maintain communications with Moscow to help de-escalate the conflict and has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. Israel has been trying to support Ukraine, which has a large Jewish population, without alienating Moscow.

Israel has walked a diplomatic tightrope in its response to the war. Israeli officials have voiced support for Ukraine, whose president is the only other Jewish head of state in the world. They have called Ukraine a liberal democratic ally. But mindful that Russia backs the Syrian regime on Israel’s northern border, Israel is concerned about provoking Moscow.

The Russian news agency TASS also announced that Russian authorities had arrested WNBA player Brittney Griner on suspicion of illegally bringing drugs into the country after being searched at the airport and found with hash oil in her luggage.

The report stated that Griner was stopped by customs control at Sheremetyevo International Airport in February upon arrival in Moscow from New York when a service dog indicated the presence of drugs. The two-time Olympic gold medalist’s luggage was searched and run through X-ray equipment, and vape cartridges of liquid cannabis oil were found.

“We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia,” the Phoenix Mercury said in a statement. “We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”

Fahim reported from Istanbul, Harris from Washington and Francis from London. Alexander Stetsenko in Kyiv; Loveday Morris in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine; Missy Ryan in Korczowa, Poland; Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem; Claire Parker in New York; and Timothy Bella, Todd C. Frankel, Mike DeBonis, Dan Lamothe, Alex Horton, Karoun Demirjian, Marisa Iati and Kareem Copeland in Washington contributed to this report.