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Battles Rage In Mariupol As US Says Russia Has Committed War Crimes

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(RFE/RL) — As Ukraine’s desperate battle against Russian troops in Mariupol raged, the U.S. government officially declared that members of Moscow’s invading forces have committed “war crimes” and Western leaders prepared for emergency meetings to plan the next steps against the Kremlin, including a new round of sanctions.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on March 23 that “today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.”

“Since launching his unprovoked and unjust war of choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed unrelenting violence that has caused death and destruction across Ukraine,” he said, particularly pointing to attacks on civilian sites in Mariupol.

U.S. President Joe Biden and the Pentagon, along with European and Ukrainian leaders, have made similar references in recent days in reaction to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, but this was the first time Washington had made the allegations in official remarks.

Blinken issued the statement while traveling with Biden to Brussels for meetings with NATO allies for an extraordinary meeting, with the White House saying it will use the occasion to announce more sanctions against Moscow.

On the same day, the European Union will hold a summit to discuss Ukraine, while the heads of the G7 group of wealthy nations are also scheduled to meet in the Belgian capital.

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Biden is due to give a news conference after the March 24 meeting, then head to Poland for talks with leaders in that country, which has taken on the bulk of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the fighting.

Fierce fighting continued for Ukraine’s besieged port of Mariupol and around Kyiv, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy kept up his high-profile campaign to press the international community to step up support for his beleaguered country in its battle against a brutal Russian invasion.

Zelenskiy chided the United Nations on March 24 for its failure to prevent Moscow’s unprovoked attack, even as the General Assembly prepared to vote on a new resolution condemning Russia’s actions and calling for humanitarian help to avoid further catastrophe.

Zelenskiy also kept up his video-linkup tour of global legislatures, evoking memories of World War I Verdun to the French parliament amid the relentless Russian devastation of the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Nearly a month after Russia invaded its neighbor, pitched battles across Ukraine have pushed almost 4 million civilians out of the country and left tens of thousands stranded in cities without utilities and dwindling foods supplies, creating what the Red Cross has called “apocalyptic” conditions.

Speaking to Japan’s parliament on March 23, Zelenskiy criticized the UN’s lack of response to Moscow’s invasion, attributing it in large part to the world body’s fundamental setup, which allowed Security Council permanent member Russia to block any true condemnation or action over its invasion of Ukraine.

“Neither the United Nations nor the UN Security Council have functioned. Reforms are needed,” the Ukrainian leader told Japanese lawmakers in an address via video link.

“We need a tool to preemptively ensure global security. Existing international organizations are not functioning for this purpose, so we need to develop a new, preemptive tool that can actually stop invasions,” Zelenskiy added.

The UN General Assembly was preparing to meet later on March 23 to discuss the war in Ukraine and a draft humanitarian resolution written by Kyiv. Unlike in the Security Council — where Russia, along with other permanent members, holds veto power — no one country can block a resolution in the General Assembly.

NATO, the United States, and most other Western allies have said they will not send troops to Ukraine, but instead have launched a series of crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy and those around Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Leaders from the security alliance, including U.S. President Joe Biden, will come together on March 24 in Brussels for an extraordinary meeting, with the White House saying it will use the occasion to announce more sanctions against Moscow.

On the same day, the European Union will hold a summit to discuss Ukraine, while the heads of the G7 group of wealthy nations are also scheduled to meet in the Belgian capital.

Despite the sanctions and diplomatic pressure being exerted on Moscow, the Red Cross says the situation is becoming dire in some parts of Ukraine.

Mariupol, which had a population of 400,000 before the war, has been reduced to rubble, with thousands of civilians dead and many more seeking a route out of the city to safety.

International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer was in Moscow on March 23 to press officials to allow the flow of humanitarian aid into hard hit areas.

“The devastation caused by the conflict in recent weeks…has been vast,” Maurer said. “There are practical steps guided by international humanitarian law that the parties must take to limit the suffering.”

Russian forces have struggled with tougher-than-expected Ukrainian resistance throughout the country, both by the military and ordinary citizens.

Moscow has not provided an update to casualty figures since early in the invasion, when it said on March 2 that 498 soldiers had been killed.

However, a NATO official told AP that the Russian death toll was likely to be between 7,000 and 14,000, although numbers on both sides are impossible to independently confirm.

Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces said in a tweet on March 23 that more than 15,000 Russian soldiers have died in the fighting.

For the past two weeks, Russia has attempted to encircle Mariupol, an important port on the Sea of Azov and the most contentious battleground in the war so far.

As Mariupol defenders engage in a desperate struggle, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported that Ukrainian troops had driven Russian forces from the Kyiv suburb of Makariv following a fierce fight.

If confirmed, the advances would allow Ukrainian troops to retake control of a strategic highway and stymie Russian attempts to surrounded Kyiv from the northwest.

In the northern city of Chernihiv, Current Time reporter Oleksandr Kotenko said that people are struggling to make ends meet beneath the constant bombardment. Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

“There has been no electricity, water, gas for more than two weeks. In some places, people cook food on the street. There was no connection for a week. Yesterday it was restored. But you can’t charge phones, so people don’t know what’s going on in the city,” he said.

Amid the fierce resistance encountered by Russian forces, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to exclude the use of nuclear weapons, but said Russia would only do that if it were facing an “existential threat.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Putin announced on February 28 that he had put the country’s strategic nuclear forces on high alert in a move that triggered global alarm.

“We have a concept of domestic security, and it’s public. You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used,” Peskov told CNN on March 22. “So if it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called Moscow’s rhetoric on potential use of nuclear weapons “dangerous.”

“It’s not the way a responsible nuclear power should act,” he told reporters, but added that Pentagon officials “haven’t seen anything that would lead us to conclude that we need to change our strategic deterrent posture.”

On-and-off talks between the two sides have continued, with little or no progress reported.

In a video address early on March 23, Zelenskiy told Ukrainians that negotiations with Russia were tough and sometimes confrontational, but he added that “step by step, we are moving forward.”

The humanitarian crisis continued unabated in Ukraine, with the United Nations estimating that more than 3.6 million have fled across Ukraine’s borders to neighboring countries, the bulk of them arriving in NATO and European Union member Poland.

RFE RL

RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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