BRUSSELS/LVIV/MARIUPOL: Western leaders agreed on Wednesday to strengthen their forces on Europe’s eastern flank, increase military aid to Ukraine and tighten sanctions on Russia whose invasion and bombardment of its neighbor entered a second month.
At an unprecedented triple summit, transatlantic alliance NATO, G7 rich nations and European leaders addressed the continent’s biggest conflict since the 1990s Balkans wars.
NATO announced new battle groups for four Eastern European nations, while the United States and Britain expanded sanctions to new targets, including a woman London said was the stepdaughter of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We must ensure that the decision to invade a sovereign independent country is understood to be a strategic failure that carries with it ruinous costs for Putin and Russia,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the EU parliament.
Various nations announced new military and humanitarian aid including promises to take in refugees. And the EU was set to unveil steps to wean itself off Russian energy.
Still, the pledges stopped short of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s calls for a full boycott of Russian energy and a no-fly zone over Ukraine where Moscow’s bombs are wreaking havoc.
The invasion unleashed on Feb. 24. by Russian leader Vladimir Putin has killed thousands of people, sent 3.6 million people fleeing Ukraine, and pulverised cities.
More than half of Ukraine’s children have been driven from their homes, the United Nations said.
“We ask for protection from (Russia) bombing us from the sky,” said refugee Svetlana, 55, on her way to rejoin family in Ukraine after seeking refuge in Poland. “And help us not only with equipment but with peace forces and professional soldiers.”
Moscow responded to Thursday’s show of unity in Brussels by saying the West had itself to blame for the war by arming the “Kyiv regime.”
Cowering below ground
In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, which lies between Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern regions held by Russian-backed separatists, tens of thousands are in basements with scant water, food, medicine or power.
In one part captured by Russian troops, a patch of grass between blasted buildings has become a makeshift graveyard. Freshly-dug mounds are marked with plastic flowers and crosses made from broken window frames.
Explosions sound in the background.
“It could have been me,” sobbed Viktoria as she buried her 73-year-old stepfather Leonid, killed when the car ferrying him to hospital was blown up.
In a month of fighting, Ukraine has fended off what many analysts had anticipated would be a quick Russian victory.
So far, Moscow has failed to capture any major city. Its armored columns have barely moved in weeks, stalled at the gates of the capital Kyiv and besieging cities in the east.
They have taken heavy casualties and are low on supplies. Ukrainian officials say they are now shifting onto the offensive and have pushed back Russian forces, including north of Kyiv.
Ukraine said its forces had destroyed the Russian landing ship the “Orsk” at the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk.
Video footage, which Reuters confirmed was from Berdyansk, showed smoke rising from a blaze at a dock and the flash of an explosion. Russian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Biden comes to Europe
As US President Joe Biden rallied allies on his first trip aboard since the war began, Washington announced $1 billion more humanitarian aid for Ukraine and an offer to take in 100,000 refugees.
He said Russia should be expelled from the G20 group of major economies.
The Kremlin accuses NATO of an “hysterical and inadequate” understanding of events in Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic linked since the 9th century when Kyiv became the capital of the ancient state of Rus. Putin says NATO’s eastern expansion has threatened Russia’s security and divided it from Ukraine
Zelensky, who has won admiration across the West for leadership under fire, urged people around the world to take to the streets in support of Ukraine.
“Come from your offices, your homes, your schools and universities, come in the name of peace, come with Ukrainian symbols to support Ukraine, to support freedom, to support life,” he said in another of his regular video addresses.
Ukraine’s armed forces chief of staff said on Thursday Russia was still trying to resume offensives to capture the cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally, posted on social media that Chechen fighters had captured the main administrative building in Mariupol and raised their flag there. His account could not be confirmed independently.
Satellite photographs from commercial firm Maxar showed massive destruction of what was once a city of 400,000 people, with apartment buildings in flames.
Journalists have not been able to report from the Ukrainian-held part of Mariupol for 10 days, during which time Ukraine says Russia has bombed a theater and an art school used as shelters, burying hundreds alive.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia on Thursday of having forcibly deported 15,000 people from the city to Russia.
Moscow denies this.
In the Russian-held part of the city, trucks arrived with food supplies in boxes bearing the “Z” symbol of what Russia calls its “special operation.” Hundreds of people, many elderly, emerged from ruins, queuing mostly in silence as men in Russian emergencies ministry uniforms distributed boxes.
Angelina, a young mother-of-two, said she had received bread, nappies and baby food. “It’s difficult to leave by bus now. We hope the number of people trying to get out will go down and it will get easier for us to leave,” she said.
Almost three-quarters of the UN General Assembly demanded aid access in Ukraine and criticized Russia for creating a “dire” humanitarian situation — the second time the body has overwhelmingly isolated Moscow over the invasion.