The U.S. and its NATO allies on Monday put heavy public pressure on China to intervene and help stop Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has killed thousands and sparked a massive humanitarian crisis in the city of Mariupol that aid organizations describe as a “life-and-death nightmare.”
A fragile cease-fire outside Mariupol appeared to be holding as the first convoy of trapped civilians escaped. The city, under a Russian military siege, lacks adequate food, water and medical supplies. Russian airstrikes were reported elsewhere across Ukraine, and fierce fighting raged outside the capital of Kyiv. Russian and Ukrainian diplomats said they would hold another round of negotiations on Tuesday.
In Washington, House and Senate leaders said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will deliver a video address to Congress on Wednesday as pressure grows on the Biden administration to dramatically ramp up U.S. military assistance to the Ukrainians. That pressure grew after a Russian airstrike over the weekend on a military base in western Ukraine less than 15 miles from the border with Poland, a NATO member.
With the war in its third week and little sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin will relent, the U.S. and other Western partners are taking a new approach to stop the bloodshed. Alongside the unprecedented economic sanctions campaign on Moscow, the Biden administration is trying to cajole China into using its influence over the Kremlin to rein in Mr. Putin.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome on Monday. A White House readout of the call said there was “substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine.” Although not originally scheduled to discuss Ukraine, the seven-hour meeting was “intense” and reflected the gravity of the crisis initiated by Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, a senior White House official said.
Other NATO partners also pushed China to throw its weight behind peace. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Beijing has influence over Moscow and can help end the fighting.
“We are at a historical moment that requires responsibility and vision of all world leaders,” the Spanish diplomat told his Chinese counterpart, according to a government readout of their call.
The White House must strike a delicate balancing act with respect to China’s role. Russia and China have grown closer in recent years, and Moscow is thought to have respected Beijing’s request to delay its invasion of Ukraine until after the Winter Olympics. Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month signed a major strategic coordination agreement declaring a “new era” of bilateral ties with “no limits.”
Russia also reportedly is looking to acquire fresh deliveries of military weapons from China, including drones. The reports alarmed top U.S. officials. Mr. Sullivan and other administration officials want to use China’s influence as a tool to secure peace while remaining wary that the country’s Communist Party leaders can throw Russia a lifeline. One way is by helping the Kremlin skirt Western sanctions.
“I’m not going to sit here publicly and brandish threats, but what I will tell you is we are communicating directly, privately, to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them,” Mr. Sullivan told CNN on Sunday. “We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from any country anywhere in the world.”
Asked whether the Monday session was successful, a senior U.S. official told reporters, “I suppose it depends on how you define success, but we believe that it is important to keep open lines of communication between the United States and China, especially on areas where we disagree.”
Chinese officials have downplayed their knowledge about the invasion of Ukraine and any efforts to prop up Russia’s economy. They sidestepped questions Monday about whether Russia had directly asked China for military assistance and said the U.S. and NATO bore the brunt of the blame for starting the war by pushing Mr. Putin into a strategic corner.
“Recently, the U.S. has been maliciously spreading disinformation targeting China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing. “China’s position on the Ukraine issue is consistent and clear. We have been playing a constructive part in promoting peace talks. The top priority at the moment is for all parties to exercise restraint, cool the situation down instead of adding fuel to the fire, and work for diplomatic settlement rather than further escalate the situation.”
A convoy of about 160 civilian cars fled Mariupol on Monday, fueling hope that the latest attempt to set up a “humanitarian corridor” would hold and that starving, freezing civilians would be able to escape. Russia’s brutal tactics outside the southern Ukrainian city, including the bombing of civilian targets, have stoked fears that Mr. Putin will employ a similar style elsewhere across Ukraine, including in Kyiv, as a way to break Ukrainian morale and force a surrender.
Russia’s ruthlessness is on full display as its ground forces are mired outside most major Ukrainian cities. Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, urged Russian forces Sunday to allow civilians to escape. “People in Mariupol have endured a weeks-long life-and-death nightmare,” he said.
Red Cross Director-General Robert Mardini echoed that sentiment Monday.
“The situation cannot, cannot continue like this,” he told The Associated Press. “History is watching what is happening in Mariupol and other cities.”
The rising death toll and civilian suffering in Mariupol and across Ukraine increased calls for the U.S. to do more. Critics have taken aim at the Biden administration for, among other things, scuttling a Polish plan to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine and refusing to implement and enforce a no-fly zone over the country.
Such moves would deprive Russia of its air power advantage. White House and Pentagon officials say further action could spark a broader conflict with Russia and spiral into a World War III scenario that includes the use of nuclear weapons.
Pentagon officials stuck to that argument Monday. They said a U.S.- and NATO-enforced no-fly zone wouldn’t have stopped Sunday morning’s Russian strike on an international military training center in Yavoriv, about 35 miles from Lviv.
A senior Defense Department official said Russia used more than two dozen long-range cruise missiles for the attack, which damaged roughly 10 buildings at the training center.
“They were launched from Russian long-range bombers from Russian airspace,” the Pentagon official said. “A no-fly zone inside of Ukraine would have had no effect on this particular set of strikes.”
With a no-fly zone and other game-changing moves seemingly off the table, the Ukrainians have opted for direct negotiations with Russia.
The two sides met Monday. Mykhailo Podolyak, a top aide to Mr. Zelenskyy, said in a Twitter post that they would meet again Tuesday to discuss “peace, ceasefire, immediate withdrawal of troops & security guarantees.”
Fox News announced that correspondent Benjamin Hall was hospitalized with unspecified injuries while reporting from Kyiv. That follows the death Sunday of American documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud, a sometime contributor for The New York Times and other publications who was on assignment in Ukraine for Time Studios. He was killed in Irpin by Russian gunfire.
AP reported that a pregnant woman injured Wednesday in the Russian shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol had died along with her unborn baby. A photo of the stretcher-borne woman being rushed to an ambulance made international headlines and came to symbolize the plight of Ukrainians caught up in the fighting.
Mr. Zelenskyy, who has won international plaudits for his efforts to rally his country against the larger and better-armed Russian forces, will address Congress on Wednesday, House and Senate leaders announced.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer urged all lawmakers to attend the special session in the Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium. Capitol Hill is plotting how to help Ukraine without sending in troops. President Biden has ruled out such a move.
“The Congress remains unwavering in our commitment to supporting Ukraine as they face Putin’s cruel and diabolical aggression, and to passing legislation to cripple and isolate the Russian economy as well as deliver humanitarian, security and economic assistance to Ukraine,” the leaders wrote. “We look forward to the privilege of welcoming President Zelenskyy’s address to the House and Senate and to convey our support to the people of Ukraine as they bravely defend democracy.”
• Jeff Mordock, Tom Howell and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.