Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its seventh day Wednesday with Russian military forces escalating attacks on civilian areas of Ukraine’s largest cities as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flee the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a televised address to the nation, rallied his citizens and praised them for their resolve.
“During this time, we have truly become one,” Zelenskyy said. “We forgave each other. We started loving each other. We help each other. We are worried for each other,” .
Russia claimed to have taken control of Kherson, a southern Ukraine city of almost 300,000. Kherson’s Mayor Igor Nikolayev, however, denied the claim. In the besieged northeastern city of Kharkiv, Mayor Igor Terekhov says rocket strikes designed to sow panic are hammering the city. But he said Kharkiv is not surrounded and will not fall.
The U.N. human rights office reported 136 civilian deaths, but the true toll was likely much higher. Ukrainian emergency services, meanwhile, say more than 2,000 Ukrainians have died.
Observers say Russian troops have killed hundreds of civilians, including more than a dozen children, and shelled apartment buildings and neighborhoods in their assault on Ukraine, realities that qualify Putin as a war criminal.
The humanitarian situation is worsening in the region. A U.N. refugee agency said more than 847,000 people have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries since the invasion began, a number that could surpass 1 million within days.
Shabia Mantoo, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the situation “looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.”
The vast majority of those leaving Ukraine are women and children. An order from Ukraine’s government prohibits men 18- to 60-years-old from leaving the country.
WATCH LIVE FROM THE HUNGARIAN BORDER: Refugee crisis building
► Twitter suspended the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik in Europe, following other social media platforms.
►The International Skating Union, figure skating’s worldwide governing body, has banned Russia’s powerful figure skating contingent from the world championships in Montpellier, France, later this month.
► The Associated Press, citing a senior Western intelligence official, estimated that 5,000 Russian soldiers had been captured or killed in the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II. Zerenskyy estimated the Russian death toll at 6,000.
► The U.N. General Assembly will vote Wednesday on a resolution demanding that Russia immediately stop using force against Ukraine and withdraw its military from the country and condemning Moscow’s decision “to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces.”
► The Moscow Stock Exchange will remain closed to trading Wednesday, the Central Bank of Russia said, as the West’s economic sanctions cratered the Russian ruble.
► Oil prices soared above $100, to their highest level since 2014, and investors shifted more money out of stocks and into ultra-safe U.S. government bonds as Russia stepped up its war on Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the actor turned wartime president, has earned international praise for his viral speeches from the streets of war-battered Kyiv while boosting morale amongst Ukrainians on the ground.
“Take care of your brothers in arms. I admire you,” Zelenskyy said in a speech Wednesday. “The whole world admires you, from Hollywood stars to politicians. Today, you Ukrainians are a symbol of invincibility. A symbol that people in any country can become the best people on Earth at any moment.”
He chided the Russians targeting major cities such as Borodyanka, Kharkiv and Kyiv, saying the attacks were meant to “erase our country. Erase us all.” Zelenskyy said more than 6,000 Russian troops had died in the first six days of fighting, according to the Ukrainian military’s count.
“To get what? To Get Ukraine? It is impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy reiterated Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union, a move which EU officials have praised. Ukraine formally signed an accelerated application to join the bloc days after Russia invasion of the country began.
– Matthew Brown
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that another World War would be “nuclear and destructive” for all parties and condemned Western sanctions on the Kremlin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine. Lavrov, in an interview with lAl-Jazeera News, claimed Russia would face “real danger” should Ukraine acquire nuclear weapons; Ukraine has not attempted to acquire nuclear weapons and Russia has provided no evidence to support its claims to the contrary.
Putin over the weekend ordered the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal to be on heightened alert, a provocative step that officials in the Biden administration and NATO allies called reckless. Military aid to Ukraine and more rounds of sanctions, however, did not waver after the escalation.
Lavrov said that while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government had been prepared for the series of stringent economic sanctions levied at Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, they had been caught off-guard by sanctions on athletes and personnel.
– Matthew Brown
The Ukrainian government raised $270 million in war bonds after it began issuing the assets to fund its defense of the country from Russian invasion. Ukraine’s central bank enacted capital controls amid the Russian invasion, making it difficult for foreign investors to participate in the program. That hasn’t stopped many international and local investors from buying the bonds, according to Ukraine’s finance ministry.
“The proceeds from the bonds will be used to meet the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and to ensure the uninterrupted provision of the state’s financial needs under the war,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance tweeted.
The Ukrainian government continues to lobby for stricter sanctions on Russian financial institutions and businesses. Western sanctions on Russia have so far caused the ruble to plummet in value while everyday Russians and economic elites rush to shield their wealth from financial crisis.
– Matthew Brown
Vice President Kamala Harris reiterated Wednesday that U.S. troops will not fight Russians in Ukraine as the Kremlin continues its advance. Appearing on NBC News Wednesday morning, Harris also said it would be “irresponsible” to engage in nuclear escalation after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had put the country’s nuclear arsenal on alert.
“Our position is we are not going to contribute to an escalation in that direction and we have no intention of changing our posture,” Harris told NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie.
Harris made the rounds Wednesday morning across several network morning shows.
“We are not going to put U.S, troops in Ukraine to fight Russians on the ground or in the air, but we are firm in our preparedness to defend our allies,” she said, echoing President Joe Biden’s vow to defend “every inch of NATO territory.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but the U.S. has sent troops to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.
– Rick Rouan
Russian negotiators are ready to resume talks with Ukrainian officials but cannot “predict whether Ukrainian negotiators will show up or not,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
“Let’s hope this happens,” Peskov said. “Ours will be there and ready.”
Peskov said Putin’s culture adviser Vladimir Medinsky remains the main negotiator for Russia. Talks held Monday near the Belarus-Ukraine border produced no breakthrough, though the two sides agreed to meet again. It was not clear when talks would continue.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has previously accused the Kremlin of trying to force him into concessions by intensifying the invasion.
“Fair negotiations can occur when one side does not hit the other side with rocket artillery at the very moment of negotiations,” he said.
– John Bacon
World champion biathlete Dmytro Pidruchnyi, who last month was competing at the Winter Olympics for Ukraine, has joined his nation’s military. He posted a photo on Instagram of himself in uniform, and the post drew more than 7,300 “likes” and many comments of support.
“I’m grateful to everyone who texts me and worries about my family and to those who support and help Ukraine,” Pidruchnyi wrote. “I’m currently in my hometown Ternopil serving in the National Guard of Ukraine. This photo was taken during air alarm.”
In another post, Pidruhnyi asks for donations for the Ukraine army and for moral support.
“Don’t tell me that sport is not related to the politics,” he said. “IT IS RELATED!! when the soldiers and civilians of my Motherland are dying while you are reading this.”
– John Bacon
President Joe Biden hailed the united response of the U.S. and Western allies against Russian President Vladimir Putin during his State of the Union address Tuesday night as Russia continues its war in Ukraine.
Biden called the attack “premeditated and totally unprovoked,” adding that Putin thought he could divide the world. “But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united,” Biden said. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been.”
Biden said the U.S. and western allies are enforcing “powerful economic sanctions,” including cutting off Russia’s largest banks from international financial systems, preventing Russia’s central bank from shoring up the Russian ruble and “making Putin’s $260 billion war fund worthless.”
He announced the U.S. is closing off airspace to all Russian flights, joining a growing number of countries around the world that have made similar moves in recent days. Biden also said he is working with 30 countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world to ease the impact of the war in Ukraine on energy markets.
– Joey Garrison
NEWS COMES TO YOU:The latest updates on the situation in Ukraine. Sign up here.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overnight attack on in civilian areas of Kharkiv as a “war crime.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague said he plans to open an investigation “as rapidly as possible” into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
“Is Vladimir Putin committing a war crime? Yes. It’s very clear,” said David Schwendiman, a former senior Justice Department lawyer and international war crimes prosecutor.
But war crime experts say the post-World War II effort to create an international framework to thwart brutal dictators such as Adolf Hitler is too toothless, caught up in power politics and focused on war crimes already committed, to make a difference when it comes to Russia’s invasion. Read more here.
– Josh Meyer
WHAT ARE WAR CRIMES?Ukraine accuses Russia of them, but what exactly constitutes a war crime?
President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that the U.S. is closing its airspace to Russian planes in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. joins a growing list of countries that have announced plans to close their airspace to Russian aircraft in response to the invasion. The European Union took that step Sunday after several European countries, including France, Italy and Denmark, announced the move.
Canada also joined the international move to cut off Russian aircraft.
– Michael Collins and Courtney Subramanian
The war has thrown a global spotlight on Ukraine’s two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Kyiv’s (KEE-ev) population of 2.7 million people would make it the third largest in the U.S. slightly ahead of Chicago. The city covers 330 square miles – bigger than Chicago or New York, about the size of San Diego.
Kyiv is in north-central Ukraine, not far from the borders with Russia and Belarus. Ukrainian and Russian are commonly spoken in the city, among the oldest in Eastern Europe.
Kharkiv (kar-KEEV), 300 miles east of Kyiv and near the Russian border, has a population of about 1.4 million spread over about 135 square miles – about the size of Philadelphia, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
The country of Ukraine has a population of about 45 million people, a few million more than California, and is about 233,000 square miles – a bit smaller than Texas.
– John Bacon
The 40-mile Russian Army convoy approaching Kyiv has made little progress because of resistance and a lack of gas and food, according to a senior U.S. Defense Department official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings.
The official said the Russians also are likely protecting the convoy, explaining why it does not appear to have been attacked. The airspace over Ukraine continues to be contested by Ukrainian and Russian forces, the official said.
There are also signs that there are morale problems among Russian troops, many of whom have been drafted into service, the official said, declining to say how the Pentagon has made that assessment. Many of the soldiers are young men who have not been thoroughly trained or even aware why they were sent to Ukraine.
The Russians, however, have a potent force in and around Ukraine, the official said.
The Russians have systems capable of launching thermobaric weapons in Ukraine, the official said. Those fuel-air weapons are used primarily to kill people on the ground or in bunkers.
– Tom Vanden Brook
USA TODAY FACT CHECK ROUNDUP:What’s true and what’s false about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Contributing: The Associated Press
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism