Russia launched airstrikes deeper into Ukraine and called on foreign “volunteers” to join its war on Friday as Moscow ramped up baseless allegations of chemical weapons threats.
As the invasion entered its third week, Russian planes hit the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro while rockets pounded Lutsk in the west, a sign that President Vladimir Putin is expanding the range of an assault that targeted the country’s largest population centers.
A US official said on Friday it was unclear how much damage had been caused in the strikes on towns in western Ukraine. But he added that the Pentagon estimates that Ukraine still has 90% of its combat power, including 80% of the warplanes it had at the start of the invasion.
Presiding over a session of his security council via video link, Putin ordered his army to deploy foreign “volunteers” to the conflict zone to “help” Ukraine residents. Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, told Putin that 16,000 people from the Middle East were ready to fight, many of whom had experience fighting the terrorist group Isis.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the call. “Thugs from Syria. . . of the country that was destroyed the same way the occupiers are destroying us now,” he said in a televised address.
The US official said on Friday that the Pentagon had seen no evidence that Syrians or other regional nationals were responding to Russia’s campaign to enlist volunteers.
The Russian president then adopted a different tone, speaking of “positive moves” in the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. Putin told Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko during a Kremlin meeting that Russian negotiators had informed him of “some positive moves” in negotiations with Ukraine, without giving further details.
The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers held talks in Turkey on Thursday, the highest-level meeting yet, but failed to reach a breakthrough or even establish a temporary ceasefire.
On Friday, Russia extended its air assault on Ukrainian cities while moving parts of an armored column north of Kiev to better positions to resume its stalled offensive on the capital.
Video posted on social media showed a huge explosion and fireball on the outskirts of Dnipro. Emergency services said the strikes were near a kindergarten and an apartment building and one person died in the attack.
Pressing a narrative that has alarmed the West, Moscow has called for the UN Security Council to meet on Friday to discuss allegations that the United States has funded research into unconventional weapons in Ukraine. The White House said the allegations were “absurd” and warned, along with the UK, that the false claims were fabricated by Moscow to potentially justify its own use of chemical or biological weapons.
In a late-night address Thursday, Zelensky said, “Apparently we are planning a chemical attack. This worries me a lot, because we have been convinced on several occasions: if you want to know the plans of Russia, look at what Russia accuses others of [doing].”
A senior US defense official said there were no US bioweapons labs in Ukraine “or anywhere else in the world”.
In 16 days, Russia has so far failed to capture any major cities and is far from achieving its goal of disarming the Ukrainian army and overthrowing its government.
But heavy shelling of Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol has taken a heavy toll on human life and forced more than 2 million people to flee the country in search of safety. After a summit of its leaders in Versailles, the EU promised on Friday to offer temporary protection to “all war refugees from Ukraine”.
US Vice President Kamala Harris has backed calls for an investigation into war crimes in Putin’s invasion, citing civilian “atrocities” caused by indiscriminate shelling. “Absolutely there should be an investigation, and we should all be watching,” she said during a visit to Poland.
Russia’s traditional allies, oligarchs and friendly ex-politicians have made various attempts to push the Russian president towards a settlement, including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who met Putin on Thursday, according to the news agency. German DPA.
Russia’s economy is reeling from sanctions and Europe and the United States have continued to tighten restrictions on its ability to trade, including exploring whether to strip the country of ‘most favored nation’ status. to the World Trade Organization, which would increase tariffs on its exports.
On Thursday, Putin pledged to seize the Russian assets of international companies that have suspended or closed their operations in the country – which range from McDonald’s to Ikea – using “legal solutions”.
Ukrainian officials have described the situation facing civilians trapped in Mariupol, which has been subjected to a remorseless bombardment, as particularly dire.
Residents have no heating or telephones and have been confined for days in freezing shelters as food and water supplies run out. Bodies were buried in mass graves. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said more than 1,300 people had died so far in the city’s 10-day siege.
“They have a clear order to hold Mariupol hostage, mock him, bomb him and bomb him constantly,” Zelensky said in a video address. He accused the Russians of staging a tank attack in an area where there was supposed to be a humanitarian corridor out of Mariupol.
In an update, Ukraine’s military said it had “pushed back and held back” Russian forces, whose troops made no significant advances overnight.
The British Ministry of Defense noted that persistent logistical problems still hampered the Russian military and that Moscow was likely to “reinitialize and reposition its forces for renewed offensive activity in the days to come”.
Western defense advisers said they believed the massive column north of Kiev had split into two parts, making it harder to attack. A column, believed to be made up of the elite of the 1st Guards Tank Army, had now dispersed into the woods and countryside around the capital in preparation for an assault, they said.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced that its forces had taken control of Volnovakha, a besieged town in southeastern Ukraine. He said Russian forces launched rocket attacks that disabled military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine and were advancing towards Mariupol.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin, Aime Williams in Washington, John Paul Rathbone in London and Victor Mallet in Paris