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Russia ramps up invasion of Ukraine, closing in on Kyiv

Russia expanded its attacks in Ukraine by firing missiles at airfields in the western part of the country as its troops and tanks moved closer to Kyiv.

(CN) — Russia's assault of Ukraine ramped up on Friday with missiles fired into the western part of the country and it moved troops and tanks against Kyiv, the capital, as fighting was reported on the outskirts of a city where Ukrainians have dug in for a hard and bloody battle.  

Russian missiles struck airfields in the western cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk, killing at least two serviceman and wounding six. A Russian missile also hit a shoe factory in the city of Dnipro, marking the first attack on a city that lies on the Dnieper River and is located between Kyiv and parts of the country under control of Russian troops. The attack in Dnipro killed at least one person.  

Sending missiles into western Ukraine, which has been until now mostly safe from the war and where millions of Ukrainians have fled to, was clearly an escalation but it likely was meant to hurt efforts by NATO to deliver arms to Ukraine rather than any indication Russia intends to push into that part of the country, where anti-Russian sentiment is very strong.   

“The strikes were far to the west from the main Russian offensive and close to the borders with Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia – a possible signal to NATO about Moscow’s growing impatience with the supply of weapons to Ukraine,” said Andrius Tursa, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, in a briefing note.   

In recent days, the U.S. and Poland discussed transferring numerous Soviet-era fighter jets used by the Polish air force to Ukraine, but the U.S. backed away from that idea for fear of Russia’s reaction. Ukraine is crying out for NATO to enter the fray by defending Ukrainian air space from Russian attacks, but so far U.S. President Joe Biden has resisted growing demands in Congress and even in Europe to take such a risky move and put NATO into direct conflict with Russia.   

Although pro-Russian sources indicated that Russia was making advances on Friday, Ukraine's military said it was holding off the attackers and even taking back some towns. An assessment late Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War found Russian advances stalling, but Russia was on the offensive Friday.   

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told his compatriots that victory was within their grasp.  

“We have been fighting against the army that was considered one of the strongest in the world, the army that was hoping that the Ukrainians would surrender,” Zelenskyy said. “It is impossible to say how long it will take to liberate our Ukrainian land. However, it is possible to say – we will do it. Because we want it, because we have already reached a strategic turning point. We are moving towards our goal, towards our victory.”  

A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces walks on the debris of a car wash destroyed by a Russian bombing in Baryshivka, Ukraine, east of Kyiv, on Friday, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In Ukraine, so far 564 civilians, including 41 children, have been killed in the fighting and 982 wounded, according to the United Nations human rights office. But it said the death toll is likely much higher because it has not been able to confirm deaths in those places where the fighting has been most fierce.  

It is unclear how many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have been killed, though Russia acknowledged about 500 deaths nine days ago.  

After 16 days of intense fighting, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the war in Ukraine may last for many more days and even weeks as the West pours weapons, such as anti-tank rocket launchers, into Ukraine and volunteers, many of them Western military veterans, stream in to join the fight. Ukraine is reportedly offering to pay anyone willing to fight $2,000 a day.    

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In recent days, there were reports that a few British soldiers disappeared from their barracks to join the fight in Ukraine, something government ministers vehemently spoke out against, worried about Russia’s reaction to seeing active British soldiers in Ukraine.   

Russia, too, is calling upon mercenaries and Russian and Western media have reported that thousands of Syrian fighters and some from the Central African Republic are ready for combat in Ukraine.   

The hope for diplomacy is bleak because neither side will back down until one of the two adversaries feels that the pain it’s suffering is too great to bear, said Olga Oliker, an expert on Europe and Central Asia at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.    

“The problem here is that from the Russian perspective, they are going to demonstrate to the Ukrainians just how much pain is in store for them and get the Ukrainians to back down,” she said in a recent International Group audio report. “Whereas the Ukrainians feel they can demonstrate to the Russians just how much pain is in store for them. Even if they can’t win, they can slow this down and make this hurt.”   

“Until one or the other side decides that the pain to themselves outweighs the pain to the other guy, they're not going to compromise very much,” she said.   

She questioned the West’s arming of Ukraine.   

“It's not a hundred percent clear to me just how much thought has gone into what happens after this,” she said.    

Ukrainian servicemen attend a training session outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Friday, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

“I don't think Western powers believe they are going to provide enough to Ukraine to really change the balance of military power – it certainly slows the Russians down,” she said. “The question here is what's the goal of this? If the goal of this is for Ukraine to win, that's probably not going to work. If the goal of this is to improve their negotiating position, great, but to what point?”   

Oliker also said the West may be making a mistake by pushing to get Putin and others from his inner circle to face war crimes at the International Criminal Court.   

"I actually think this is a mistake if the desire is to get the Russians to the negotiating table,” she said. “Telling them that your goal is a change in their government, prosecution of members of their government at the International Criminal Court, doesn't give them a whole lot of incentive to negotiate and back away, does it?”   

On Friday, White House officials said there was growing evidence that Russia was committing war crimes.  

“We have all seen the devastating images coming out of Ukraine and are appalled by Russia’s brutal tactics. Pregnant women on stretchers, apartment buildings shelled, families killed while seeking safety from this terrible violence. We are also seeing reports of other types of potential abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates told reporters aboard Air Force One. “If Russia is intentionally targeting civilians, that would be a war crime. And as we are all seeing on live television, evidence is mounting and we are documenting it as it takes place. There are strong indications that this is occurring and that the heinous way Russia is prosecuting this war will result in war crimes.”  

Ukrainians continued to flee the war zone with the United Nations reporting that 2.5 million people have now left. About 44 million people call Ukraine home and millions of Ukrainians are trapped in besieged cities, desperately seeking to survive inside bunkers, underground subway stations, homes and any place where they might avoid death.  

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The worst humanitarian disaster appears to be unfolding in Mariupol, a southern port city of about 430,000 without electricity and water amid freezing temperatures and extreme food shortages. Russian forces have surrounded the city and reportedly fighting is taking place on its outer streets. The city has reported collecting more than 1,200 bodies from its streets and begun burying the dead in mass graves.  

On Friday, Russia also stepped up its accusations that the United States funded bioweapons research at laboratories in Ukraine, allegations the U.S. has called false.  

Western leaders are warning that Russia may use the bioweapons allegations as a pretext to unleash chemical weapons in Ukraine. Russia called a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York City to air its allegations.  

After a two-day summit in Paris, European Union leaders and French President Emmanuel Macron said they will do everything they can short of going to war with Russia to help Ukraine and punish Russia.  

The EU said it was banning the export of luxury goods to Russia, a tactic meant to get Russia’s elite to turn against Putin, and a ban on Russian iron and steel imports. The EU is also proposing to forbid European investments in Russia's energy sector. 

Biden also announced a similar set of sanctions, including a ban in the U.S on imports of Russian vodka, seafood and diamonds.  

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the sanctions the West has imposed “have hit Russia's economy very hard.”  

“The ruble has plummeted. Many key Russian banks are cut-off from the international banking system. Companies are leaving the country, one after the other, not wanting to have their brands associated with a murderous regime,” she said in a statement.  

The West on Friday also revoked Russia’s status as a most-favored-nation for trade, a step meant to hurt Russian companies. Von der Leyen said efforts are underway to suspend Russia's membership rights in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  

“We will ensure that Russia cannot obtain financing, loans, or any other benefits from these institutions,” she said. “Because Russia cannot grossly violate international law and, at the same time, expect to benefit from the privileges of being part of the international economic order.”  

European Union leaders attend an informal EU summit at the Chateau de Versailles in Versailles, west of Paris, on Friday March 11, 2022. (Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP)

The EU is also going after the funds of so-called Russian oligarchs and their families, people who allegedly have gotten extremely wealthy through corrupt ties with the Kremlin. Von der Leyen a task force is being set up to target “Putin's cronies.” 

She said the Russian state and its elites will be prevented from using “crypto assets to circumvent the sanctions.”  

The EU said it is providing Ukraine's government with 300 million euros (about $328 million). Ukraine's Ministry of Economy said Western governments are looking at transferring billions of dollars of sanctioned Russian assets to Ukraine. Ukraine estimates that Russia has inflicted about $119 billion in damages on the country since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion 16 days ago.  

Russia is responding to the West’s economic blockade by passing large economic support packages to help Russians hit by the sanctions. These measures include one-time payouts to families with children and funds to support the construction, transport, technology and hospitality sectors.  

The Russian government is also planning to in essence nationalize the assets of Western companies that have left Russia. Russian media says about 60 major international companies across various sectors – including automotive, electronics, technology, retail, food and drink, logistics – may be targets for potential nationalization. 

Russia is also hitting back by banning some exports, including medical, telecommunications, and technological equipment, vehicles, agricultural machinery, electrical items, and some raw materials, including timber. It is still exporting its wheat, metals and energy products for now, but that could change too. It is looking at banning the entry of foreign ships at its ports.  

The war in Ukraine is causing a worrying spike in oil and gas prices to rise around the globe and there are growing fears about food shortages because Ukraine and Russia provide about 19% of the world’s barley supply, 14% of wheat and 4% of maize.  

On Friday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that food prices around the world could rise between 8% and 20% because of the war, potentially exacerbating malnourishment.  

In 2011, a rise in food prices helped trigger protests in North Africa and the Middle East that led to so-called Arab Spring, mass unrest and conflict, including the Syrian civil war.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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