More than 2 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland since the start of Russia’s invasion of their country, and Biden will meet with Ukrainian refugees and American humanitarian workers Saturday in Warsaw, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
“The suffering that’s taking place now is at your doorstep,” Biden said in remarks at Poland’s Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport. “You’re the ones who are risking, in some cases, your life and risking all you know to try to help. And the American people are proud to support your efforts.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda and other U.S. and international officials also attended. Duda thanked Biden for visiting Rzeszów, which has seen some of the largest influx of Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Biden said he was disappointed that he would be unable to go to Ukraine to see firsthand what is happening in the country. Biden on Thursday pledged $1 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing the invasion.
“It’s just devastating to see those little babies, little children, looking at mothers who you don’t have to understand the language they speak. You see in their eyes the pain,” Biden said. “I don’t think there’s anything worse for a parent than to see a child suffering, their child suffering.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continue to mount fierce, effective resistance around the country with indications that they have pushed back Russian forces near some cities. Near Kyiv, Russian troops have dug into defensive positions and heavy fighting is happening just northwest of the city, a senior Defense official said Friday.
The Russians have largely turned their focus of ground troops and airstrikes on eastern Ukraine, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments. The shift, which the Kremlin appeared to confirm, could signal an important narrowing of Moscow’s military objectives as Russian forces appeared to have halted, at least for now, in their ground offensive in capturing Kiev, the country’s capital.
Heavy fighting is now occurring in the Donbas region, where Russian-backed forces have fought with Ukrainians since 2014.
Col.-Gen Sergei Rudskoi, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, said the main objective of the first stage of the operation — reducing Ukraine’s fighting capacity — has “generally been accomplished,” allowing Russian forces to focus on “the main goal, liberation of Donbas.”
The seeming shift in Moscow’s stated war aims — after weeks in which Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine’s right to exist as an sovereign country and appeared bent on capturing many of its cities and toppling its government — could point to a possible exit strategy for Russia, which has suffered fiercer resistance and heavier losses than anticipated.
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►The U.N. human rights office said it has been challenging to confirm fatalities in Mariupol given the organization’s strict methodology for counting the number of civilian deaths in conflict. The office says at least 1,035 civilians have been killed in Ukraine and 1,650 injured, but acknowledges that is an undercount.
►Finland’s national rail company on Friday said it would suspend its service between Helsinki and the Russian city of St. Petersburg, closing one of the last public transit routes between the EU and Russia.
►Spotify is halting its services in Russia in light of the country’s strict new censorship law, which it says puts its employees and possibly even listeners at risk.
►Russia’s military said it would offer safe passage to foreign ships that have been stranded in Ukrainian ports.
►Author J.K. Rowling pushed back after Russian President Vladimir Putin dragged her into a rant against Western efforts to “cancel” Russian culture. “Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics,” the Harry Potter author said.
About 300 people were killed in the Russian airstrike last week on a Mariupol theater that was being used as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said Friday in what would make it the war’s deadliest known attack on civilians yet.
For days, the government in the besieged and ruined port city was unable to give a casualty count for the March 16 bombardment of the grand, columned Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of people were said to be taking cover, the word “CHILDREN” printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside to ward off aerial attack.
In announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel Friday, the city government cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses arrived at the figure or whether emergency workers had finished excavating the ruins.
The scale of devastation in Mariupol, where bodies have been left unburied amid bomb craters and hollowed-out buildings, has made information difficult to obtain.
Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian transport ship in the port city of Berdyansk that appeared to be on a resupply mission, a senior Defense official said Friday.
The attack on Thursday blew up a tank-landing ship at its pier, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments. The Russians have 22 warships in the Black Sea.
Russian combat power in Ukraine, which dipped below 90% for the first time this week, is now between 85% and 90%, the official said. For the first time, Russia appears to be drawing reinforcements from its troops based in Georgia. Combat power includes troops, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, warplanes, warships and ballistic missiles.
Russia has also drawn down its stockpile of precision-guided weapons and is relying more on so-called dumb bombs to bombard cities, the official said. Russia has used about 50% of its air-launched cruise missiles. Russia’s cruise missiles have at times failed to launch or hit their targets.
– Tom Vanden Brook
President Joe Biden used his first stop in Poland on Friday to personally thank U.S. troops stationed near the border of Ukraine.
“You are the finest fighting force in the history of the world, and that’s not hyperbole,” Biden said during a visit with members of the 82nd Airborne Division in Rzeszów, Poland, about 60 miles from the border of Ukraine.
Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in Poland to help shore up NATO’s eastern flank amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Minutes after landing in Poland, Biden stopped by a barbershop where around a dozen service members sat in folding chairs awaiting haircuts and others were getting a cut. He shook hands with several soldiers and joked about their closely shorn hair.
“You are an amazing group of women and men,” Biden said. “I just want to thank you for your service. As your commander in chief, I meant it from the bottom of my heart.”
– Michael Collins
U.S. to increase gas exports to Europe to reduce dependence on Russia
The United States and the European Union announced a new task force Friday that aims to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.
“Putin has issued Russia’s energy resources to coerce and manipulate his neighbors. He’s using the profits to drive his war machine,” President Joe Biden said following a bilateral meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Biden said the task force will focus on two initiatives: helping Europe reduce its dependency on Russian gas as quickly as possible and reducing Europe’s demand for gas overall.
Biden, on Friday, also announced a plan where the U.S. a few like-minded partners will increase exports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to Europe by 15 billion cubic meters this year. Those exports would triple in the years afterward, a necessary move if the EU can back up its claim to be rid of Russian imports in five years.
It will take huge investments, and getting more liquefied natural gas to Europe could be difficult. U.S. export facilities are already operating at capacity, and most new terminals are still only in the planning stages. Most U.S. shipments already go to Europe.
Even if more gas can be shipped to Europe, the continent may struggle to receive it. Import terminals are in coastal areas, and Europe’s pipeline system doesn’t have all the connections needed to send the natural gas throughout the continent.
The moves come weeks after the United States announced a ban on all Russian energy imports. At the time, Biden said he made the decision in consultation with European allies and would create a long term plan with them.
“I know that eliminating Russian gas will have a cost for Europe,” Biden said. “But it’s not only the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, it’s going to put us on a much stronger strategic footing.”
— Rebecca Morin
Russian shelling in Slavutych, a town near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where many of its workers live, threatens the ability of the staff at the plant to rotate safely, an international nuclear watchdog said Thursday.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement Ukrainian personnel had informed the agency of the Russian attacks that threatened the Chernobyl plant’s operational staff, their families and homes.
The staff was able to rotate out for a shift change recently after four weeks, Grossi said, but the shelling poses concerns. Russian forces took control of the plant early on in their invasion of Ukraine, raising worries about the safety of nuclear operations at the site.
NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday the use of nuclear or chemical weapons in Ukraine would “totally change the nature of the war in Ukraine. It will be absolutely unacceptable.”
Stoltenberg made the comments during a visit to a Cold Response drill, which occurs every two years and brings together NATO members and non-NATO members including Finland and Sweden.
Russia declined to participate, but Stoltenberg said NATO “always invite other countries to observe.”
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a meeting Friday that Russia was facing a “total war declared on us” as the West seeks to “to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy, and Russia on the whole.”
After a Russian airstrike targeted a theater in the southeastern city Mariupol where civilians were seeking shelter, about 300 people are dead, the city’s government said Friday.
Mariupol’s government made the announcement on its Telegram channel, citing eyewitnesses. It wasn’t immediately clear if excavation efforts at the theater were complete.
The site was hit on March 16 and the word “CHILDREN” was posted outside in Russian to deter an attack on the civilian shelter. Mariupol has faced some of the harshest conditions among Ukrainian cities as Russian forces laid siege to the city.
In an evening address to Ukraine late Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of hope and determination as the war headed into its second month.
“It is already night. But we are working,” Zelenskyy said in a video address. “The country must move toward peace, move forward. With every day of our defense, we are getting closer to the peace that we need so much. We are getting closer to victory. … We can’t stop even for a minute.
Earlier in the week, Zelenskyy called on people worldwide to gather in public to show support for his embattled country. “Come to your squares, your streets. Make yourselves visible and heard,” he said.
Russian troops are purposefully targeting food stores in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, a local government official said.
In an audio message to The Associated Press, city council secretary Olexander Lomako said a “catastrophe” is unfolding in the northern city. Lomako added that a Russian airstrike destroyed a bridge over the Desna River this week, a key route for bringing in food and other supplies from Ukraine-controlled territory further south.
“Humanitarian help, medicines and food used to be delivered into the city via this bridge,” he told The Associated Press.
Less than half of the residents, around 130,000, are left in the city from the pre-war population of 285,000, Lomako said.
— Celina Tebor
A majority of Americans are supportive of the harsh sanctions on Russia but believe Biden needs to be tougher on the Kremlin after its invasion of Ukraine, according to a poll commissioned by the Associated Press and NORC released Thursday.
The poll, which surveyed 1,082 U.S. adults from Thursday to Monday, found 56% of Americans believe Biden’s response to Russia hasn’t been tough enough, including a majority of 53% of Democrats. A very small percent, about 6%, said they thought Biden had been “too tough,” the poll shows.
Across the board, Americans of both political parties were supportive of the harsh economic blows to Russia. The poll showed 68% were supportive of economic sanctions in general with 70% saying they supported the recent banning oil imported from Russia, which in turn caused gas prices to rise.
— Christal Hayes
Contributing: The Associated Press