The National Times - US ups sanctions as Russia moves on central, western Ukraine

US ups sanctions as Russia moves on central, western Ukraine

US ups sanctions as Russia moves on central, western Ukraine
US ups sanctions as Russia moves on central, western Ukraine

The United States stepped up the pressure against Moscow on Friday as Russian forces moved further into western and central Ukraine and tightened their grip on the capital Kyiv.

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More than two weeks after Russia invaded its neighbour on February 24, hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped and under bombardment, while the UN estimates some 2.5 million have fled.

The situation is particularly dire in the southern port city of Mariupol where local officials said Friday more than 1,500 people have been killed during 12 days of Russian siege.

Western powers have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Moscow and sent funds and military aid to Kyiv, but have failed to halt the advance, including against civilian targets.

President Joe Biden said Friday the US and its allies would end normal trade relations with Russia and announced a ban on imports of Russian vodka, diamonds and seafood. The US will also ban the export of US luxury goods to Russia and Belarus.

"Putin must pay the price. He cannot pursue a war that threatens the very foundation of international peace and stability and then ask for help from the international community," Biden said.

US and European stock markets had risen earlier, buoyed by Putin's comments about "certain positive shifts" in negotiations with Ukraine.

The first high-level talks between the two sides on Thursday failed to make a breakthrough, but Putin said negotiations are "now being held on an almost daily basis".

But there was no let up in the bombardment, with three missiles hitting civilian buildings in the central city of Dnipro early Friday, destroying a shoe factory and killing a security guard.

The industrial hub of one million inhabitants had been considered a relatively safe haven, a centre for coordination of humanitarian aid and those fleeing more severe fighting in the country's east.

But images of its charred or destroyed buildings -- including a kindergarten with windows blown out -- now join those from Kharkiv and Mariupol as testimony to the brutal conflict.

"Today, we were supposed to host people who need a lot of support," said Svetlana Kalenecheko, who lives and works in a clinic that was damaged.

"Now we can't help anyone."

Elsewhere, a care home for disabled people was hit in the village of Oskil, near Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, local officials said, although no casualties were reported.

Russia also announced the military airfields of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine closer to the Polish border, had been "put out of action".

Local officials said four Ukrainian servicemen were killed in the attack.

Ukraine claimed the widening of Russia's targets followed its failure to secure cities already under siege, and insisted Moscow had made no "significant progress" in the last 24 hours.

- Syrian 'mercenaries' -

But the capital Kyiv risks being entirely surrounded, with presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak calling it a "city under siege".

He tweeted that it was "ready to fight", with checkpoints prepared and supply lines in place, adding: "Kyiv will stand until the end".

The Ukrainian military warned on Thursday Russia was trying to "block" Kyiv by taking out defences to the west and north of the capital, adding that there was also a risk to Brovary in the east.

The northwest suburbs, including Irpin and Bucha, have already endured days of heavy bombardment but Russian armoured vehicles are also advancing on the northeastern edge.

Ukrainian soldiers described fierce fighting for control of the main highway leading into the capital, and AFP reporters saw missile strikes in Velyka Dymerka just outside Kyiv's limits on Thursday.

Turkey, one of the last countries to keep its embassy open in Kyiv, said Friday it had was beginning to evacuate staff.

Britain's defence ministry said Russian forces were committing more forces to encircle key cities, reducing numbers available to continue the advance.

The Kremlin on Friday announced that Syrian fighters can fight for Russia in Ukraine after Putin backed plans to draft in 16,000 volunteers, mostly from the Middle East.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of hiring "murderers from Syria, a country where everything has been destroyed... like they are doing here to us".

- 'World War III' -

In a video message recorded outside his presidential office in Kyiv, Zelensky also demanded the European Union "do more" to help his country.

Around 100,000 people have been able to leave the northeastern city of Sumy, the eastern city of Izyum, and areas northwest of Kyiv in the last two days, Ukrainian officials said.

But the president warned living conditions were deteriorating fast, in the northeast, around the capital and in the east.

"In the Sumy, Kyiv and Donetsk regions, there is no more electricity. Yes, there are problems with heating. There is no gas, no water," he said.

"It's a humanitarian catastrophe."

EU leaders on Friday sought to double financing for military aid to Ukraine by an extra 500 million euros (around $550 million).

Late Thursday the US congress passed a budget including $14 billion in humanitarian and military aid to the country.

But the US has ruled out enforcing a no-fly zone, and rejected a Polish plan to transfer fighter jets to Ukraine via a US air base for fear of being drawn directly into the conflict.

Biden again ruled out any direct intervention on Friday, warning that such conflict pitting the NATO alliance against the Kremlin "is World War III".

- Severe price -

In Mariupol, Mayor Vadym Boichenko said Russian warplanes had targeted residential areas in the city "every 30 minutes" on Thursday, "killing civilians, the elderly, women and children".

Zelensky accused Moscow of launching a "tank attack" targeting a humanitarian corridor to which he had dispatched a convoy to try to get food, water and medicine into the city.

On Wednesday, he and top Western officials also accused Russia of a "war crime" for the bombing of a children's hospital there that local officials said killed three people, including a young girl.

Russia's army claimed the bombing was a "staged provocation" by Ukraine.

Yulia, a 29-year-old teacher who fled Mariupol, said her mother-in-law was still there, and told them "the attacks don't stop".

"There are many corpses on the street and nobody buries them," she told AFP.

Later Friday, the UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting at Russia's request, over its claims that the US is funding research into the development of biological weapons in Ukraine.

Both Washington and Kyiv have denied the allegations, with the US saying they were a sign that Moscow could soon use the weapons itself.

"I'm not going to speak about the intelligence, but Russia would play a severe price if they used chemicals," Biden told reporters Friday.