Russia bombards major Ukrainian cities as U.N. condemns Kremlin

Russia bombards major Ukrainian cities as U.N. condemns Kremlin

Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday agreed to a second round of peace talks even as Russian troops stepped up their assault of the key cities of Kharkiv and Kherson and neared the capital of Kyiv, while defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared his country will never surrender as a brutal war that has drawn global condemnation enters its second week.

Officials from the two countries are expected to meet Thursday, though the exact details and parameters of those talks are unclear.

Russian officials signaled that they would take a hard line in negotiations. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov again accused the West of sparking the conflict by rejecting a host of Kremlin demands, including promises that Ukraine would never join NATO.

In the face of a mounting wall of global disapproval and a tougher-than-expected fight on the ground, the Kremlin showed little willingness to back off its unprovoked assault.

Mr. Zelenskyy again sought to rally the Ukrainian people, who have mounted an impressive showing against their much larger, better-equipped foe. He said a Russian victory in his country is “impossible.”

“It will not happen with rockets, it will not happen with bombs, tanks, any strikes,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a speech, according to English-language media translations. “We are on our land, and there will be an international tribunal to prosecute them for the war against us.”

Russia’s public relations blitz to justify the attack on its neighbor has faltered badly. In the latest sign of international opposition, the U.N. General Assembly in New York voted overwhelmingly to condemn the war. Only Cuba, Belarus, North Korea and Syria sided with Moscow in a debate that Russian diplomats tried fiercely to prevent.

As the Biden administration ramped up economic sanctions on Russia and its ally Belarus and launched a Justice Department unit targeting wealthy oligarchs in Moscow, Russian forces continued a brutal assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Missiles reportedly hit the city’s regional police building, intelligence headquarters and other facilities. 

Kharkiv today is the Stalingrad of the 21st century,” said Oleksiy Arestovich, a top adviser to the Ukrainian president. He was referring to one of the bloodiest conflicts of World War II in which Soviet defenders held off a huge Nazi invading force.

Despite some early reverses, Russian forces continued to advance on the port cities of Kherson and Mariupol in the south. Russian troops were reportedly in control of much of Kherson as of Wednesday afternoon.

In Mariupol, at least one teenager died and two more were wounded by apparent Russian shelling. Their families told The Associated Press that they were playing soccer near a school. It was just one example of the horror gripping the Ukrainian population.

A 40-mile Russian military convoy approached Kyiv from the north, though U.S. officials said the caravan was moving much slower than expected because of fuel shortages and other logistical challenges. Still, there were growing fears that Russia was preparing for a lengthy siege of the capital city, perhaps aiming to cut off its food and fuel supplies.

Regime change in Kyiv now appears to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal, despite his claims that Russian troops wanted only to secure peace in Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region.

Global condemnation

With thousands already dead, Russia showed signs that it was prepared to dramatically escalate the conflict. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said at the emergency U.N. General Assembly debate that there is evidence that Russia is prepared to use more banned weapons to subdue the Ukrainian resistance.

“That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, which are banned under the Geneva Convention,” she said.

Widespread use of such weapons would underscore a change in Russian tactics after its hope for a swift, easy victory quickly dissolved and the Zelenskyy government skillfully rallied global opinion against the invaders. 

Russia acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that it had suffered casualties and put the number killed at 498. Ukrainian officials said the true figure is in the thousands. Russian officials said 2,870 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, though Kyiv disputed that figure. 

Ukrainian officials said 2,000 civilians had been killed and nearly 6,000 Russian troops had died. Pentagon officials told the Reuters news agency that the Russian numbers were suspect. Neither side’s claims could be independently verified.

Some 830,000 Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries to avoid the fighting, according to a United Nations estimate, and many more have been displaced inside the country. The lead U.N. human rights office confirmed that 227 civilians were killed and 525 injured in just the first six days of fighting.

Russia faced unprecedented condemnation on the world stage just hours after President Biden used his first State of the Union address to project Western unity and solidarity with Ukraine.

“As 141 member states of the United Nations know, more is at stake even than the conflict in Ukraine itself. This is a threat to the security of Europe and the entire rules-based order,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after the vote.

Russia brushed off the vote and stuck to its claims that Ukraine and its Western allies, including the U.S., were to blame for the conflict.

“The West refused to cooperate with us on establishing a new European security architecture,” Mr. Lavrov said in an interview with al Jazeera.

Thirty-five nations, including China and India, abstained from the U.N. vote. Beijing’s communist government confirmed that it would not join a wide-ranging sanctions campaign by the U.S. and other countries against Russia. China said it opposes “unilateral” measures and doubts they would be effective.

China, which recently signed a broad cooperation agreement with Russia ratifying their joint opposition to the U.S.-led liberal international order, said it will continue to buy Russian natural gas and will not observe the financial sanctions designed to starve the funding for Moscow’s military invasion of Ukraine.

“As far as financial sanctions are concerned, we are not in favor of such unilaterally initiated sanctions because they are not effective and have no legal basis,” Guo Shuqing, chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission and the country’s chief banking regulator, said during a press conference at the State Council Information Office, according to the state-controlled Global Times news website.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said China’s public statements revealed tacit support for the Russian invasion. China’s Foreign Ministry in recent days has tried to moderate Beijing’s overt backing for the Russian military action by mentioning Ukrainian sovereignty, he said.

“But we haven’t seen China join the list of countries that have enacted sanctions on Russia,” Mr. Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. “We haven’t seen the Chinese blame Mr. Putin for the violence he’s causing. Instead, they have been blaming the United States, incredibly.”

Mr. Blinken announced plans for a diplomatic trip to Brussels and the NATO states in Eastern Europe bordering Russia and Ukraine.

He said Washington would support any diplomatic deal supported by Kyiv to halt the fighting and get the Russian troops to withdraw.

“If there are diplomatic steps that we can take that the Ukrainian government believes would be helpful, we’re prepared to take them, even as we continue to support Ukraine’s ability to defend itself,” he said. The trip will include stops in Poland and Moldova, which have accepted large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, and the Baltic states.

Suppressing dissent

China’s reluctance may hamper the global sanctions campaign, but there are clear signs that the Russian economy is suffering. Mr. Biden said in his Tuesday night address that the U.S. will go further and specifically target influential billionaires in Mr. Putin’s inner circle. 

“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” Mr. Biden told a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night at the beginning of his State of the Union speech.

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday formally rolled out that initiative, dubbed Task Force KleptoCapture. The administration also unleashed economic sanctions on Belarus, a key Russian ally that has offered its territory as a staging ground for Russian troops now invading Ukraine from the north.

Mr. Putin, Mr. Lavrov and other Russian officials have remained defiant in the face of those sanctions. Still, there are indications that a potential economic catastrophe and a wildly unpopular war are having an impact on the Russian population. Widespread protests have erupted in major Russian cities in the week since the assault began.

On Wednesday, jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for Russians to stand up to the “insane czar” Mr. Putin by holding anti-war demonstrations and to not fear arrest in what has become a widening Kremlin crackdown on internal dissent.

“I am urging everyone to take to the streets and fight for peace,” said Mr. Navalny, who has a history of leading protests against Mr. Putin but is serving time at a Russian penal colony for a sentence widely rejected as politically motivated.

“If, to prevent war, we need to fill up the jails and police vans, we will fill up the jails and police vans,” the 49-year-old opposition leader said in a statement posted on Facebook, according to the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.

He made the comments amid signs of a widening crackdown by Russian authorities against internal opposition to the war. A key human rights group said police have detained thousands of people in cities across Russia over the past several days.

At least 411 people were arrested in 13 Russian cities on Monday, according to the group, OVD-Info, bringing the total detained since the Ukraine invasion began on Feb. 24 to more than 6,400.

• Guy Taylor, Bill Gertz and David R. Sands contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.