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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Russian forces advance, survivors pulled from bombed theater

Russia hammered Ukrainian cities on Thursday as its troops made slow advances and appeared on the cusp of capturing Mariupol, where survivors were pulled from the wreckage of a bombed theater.

(CN) — Russian troops appeared to be closing in on the capture of the key southern port city of Mariupol on Thursday and pounded Ukrainian positions in other parts of the country.  

In Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said they had pulled more than 130 people from out of the wreckage of the Drama Theater, which was struck Wednesday. Hundreds of people were reportedly hunkering down in the theater's basements to avoid shelling.  

It remained unclear if anyone was killed in the blast, but city officials said more than 1,000 people may have been in the building and that rescue efforts were slow due to the total breakdown of city services.     

The blast at the theater came a week after Russia was accused of shelling a maternity hospital in Mariupol with pregnant mothers and medical staff inside.  

Alleged intentional attacks on civilians prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” for the first time on Wednesday, setting up a major hurdle for diplomatic efforts. He doubled down on Thursday at a St. Patrick’s Day event where he called Putin a “murderous dictator, a pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.” 

Mariupol has been the scene of horrific fighting between Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces against hardcore Ukrainian fighters with the Azov Regiment. Fighting has reached the city center as Russian forces move in to seize the city, according to military sources.   

A city with about 400,000 residents, Mariupol is in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe, though tens of thousands of traumatized civilians have been able to leave in cars and on foot in the past few days. Videos posted online show a city destroyed by war. 

Ukraine alleged a Russian warplane bombed the theater while Russia accused Azov fighters of detonating explosives inside it. As of Thursday, it had not been independently verified how the building was blown up.    

Wednesday saw hopes for a ceasefire and even a peace deal grow with both sides saying they were making progress in negotiations. But harsher fighting and rhetoric quickly returned on Thursday.   

“Negotiations are complicated. The positions of the parties are different. For us, fundamental issues are inviolable,” said Mykhailo Podoliak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Twitter.  

It seems Ukraine may be unwilling to grant autonomous status to two eastern Ukrainian regions that Russia has recognized as independent and not want to legitimize Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.  

With negotiations on a ceasefire mired in difficulties, the war seems far from over.    

On Thursday, there were reports of deadly shelling by Russian forces in many key cities and towns, including Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv, in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital, and in eastern Ukraine where fighting has been very intense. About 60,000 Ukrainian troops are believed to be engaged in bitter battle in eastern Ukraine and Russian forces are trying to encircle them.   

People clear debris outside a medical center damaged after parts of a Russian missile, shot down by Ukrainian air defense, reportedly landed on a nearby apartment block in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Ukraine reported some counterattacks too and presented new evidence of successful attacks on Russian tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft.  

On Thursday, Western intelligence sources told media outlets, including the New York Times, that they estimated that more than 7,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and that up to 21,000 have been wounded in three weeks of fighting. These numbers, though, cannot be independently verified and may be exaggerated to give a sense that Russia is on the verge of defeat.  

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Russian military sources have shown evidence of Russian advances and some military experts, including some in the West, say that Russia has already met many of its strategic goals by encircling key cities and pounding Ukraine’s military while trying to avoid large-scale civilian deaths.  

On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights agency reported it had recorded 726 civilian deaths and 1,174 wounded. It said it had confirmed the deaths of 52 children in the conflict. The actual number of civilian deaths is likely much higher, the U.N. agency said. For comparison, about 12,130 civilians were killed in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  

Russia and Ukraine have both kept the number of troop casualties a secret, though Russia acknowledged 498 soldiers had been killed after a week of fighting. Regardless, both sides are suffering heavy losses.  

Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster grows with more than 3 million people having fled Ukraine and perhaps as many as 40 million people still in a country where water supplies, electricity, food, medical supplies and so many other basic necessities are running out or have been destroyed.    

As has become customary, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made more highly emotional and impassioned pleas to the world on Thursday. In one video, he called on the world to declare Russia a “terrorist state.”   

But his most significant moment came when he delivered a speech via video to the German Bundestag. This came a day after he called on the United States to come to Ukraine’s aid in a speech to the U.S. Congress that drew a standing ovation.   

Unlike his address praising American help and its history, he took aim at Germany and accused it of spending too many years ignoring the Russian threat and funding Putin’s war machine by purchasing its oil and gas at the expense of Ukraine and peace in Europe. 

His speech, presented by a Jew whose family members were killed in the Holocaust, was a powerful rebuke of German policy toward Russia and it sought to make Germans feel guilty for atrocities Nazi forces committed in Ukraine, where millions of people were killed, and for Germany’s passivity in recent years in the face of the threat posed by Putin’s Russia.    

After World War II, Germany sought to build ties with the Soviet Union with the goal of softening communism through trade, diplomatic rapprochement and cultural exchanges.   

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has become a major investor in Russia and deepened its reliance on Russian natural gas by encouraging the construction of pipelines across the Baltic Sea from Russia directly to Germany – the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. But critics said they threatened to make Soviet-era pipelines through Ukraine obsolete and allow Russia more leverage over Ukraine. Kyiv and Moscow have been in bitter disputes over transit fees and the price of gas Ukraine pays ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.     

“When we told you that Nord Stream was a weapon and a preparation for a great war, we heard in response that it was [about] the economy,” Zelenskyy said. “But it was cement for a new wall.”   

Members of the German parliament Bundestag give Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a standing ovation following his virtual address on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

He described Europe as being once again divided by a new kind of Berlin Wall with free Europeans on one side and those on the other side living in a Russian-dominated world of “slavery.”    

“You are like behind the wall again. Not the Berlin Wall. But in the middle of Europe. Between freedom and slavery,” Zelenskyy said. “This wall grows stronger with each bomb that falls on our land, on Ukraine.”  

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Since Putin invaded Ukraine, Germany has made radical shifts in its domestic and foreign policies under a new government led by the center-left Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose party is in a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, two smaller parties with hawkish views on Russia’s authoritarian regime.  

Prompted by the invasion, Scholz broke with a taboo in Germany against rebuilding its military might and presented plans to double spending on its armed forces next year with an infusion of 100 billion euros (about $111 billion) and to increase military spending each year to 2% of its gross domestic product, a target the U.S. has long been asking for. Such a military budget would put Germany on par with what Russia spends on its military, though still far below what the U.S. and China spend.    

Germany also canceled the still unused and controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a major policy shift. The pipeline was built and ready for use despite U.S. objections and sanctions. It was designed to double the amount of Russian gas going across the Baltic.    

Zelenskyy said the West’s sanctions on Russia are not enough to stop the war and called on more forceful military action by the West to beat back Russia.    

Although crippling sanctions have been imposed on Russia, the European Union exempted Russian oil and gas because it has no viable replacement for Russia’s energy imports at the moment. Already, gas prices are rising swiftly in Europe and fishermen in Italy and Spain have moored their boats because it costs too much to work.    

Zelenskyy accused Germany of preventing Ukraine from becoming a NATO and EU member.   

“When we asked you what Ukraine needs to do to become a member of NATO, to be safe, to receive security guarantees, we heard the answer: such a decision is not on the table yet and will not be in the near future,” he said. “Just as you are still delaying the issue of Ukraine's accession to the European Union. Frankly, for some it is politics. The truth is that it is stones. Stones for a new wall.”   

He called on Germany to not let a “new wall” descend on Europe.   

“I am addressing you on behalf of Ukrainians, I am addressing you on behalf of Mariupol residents – civilians of a city that Russian troops have blocked and razed to the ground,” he said.   

“Russian troops do not distinguish between civilians and military. They don’t care where civilian objects are, everything is considered a target,” Zelenskyy charged. “They are destroying everything. ‘Round the clock.”   

He said Germany must never again allow genocide.  

“I appeal to you on behalf of everyone who has heard politicians say: ‘Never again,’” he said. “Because again in Europe they are trying to destroy the whole nation. Destroy everything we live by and live for.”   

He finished by saying: “Former actor, President of the United States Ronald Reagan once said in Berlin: ‘Tear down this wall.’ And I want to tell you now, Chancellor Scholz: ‘Tear down this wall.’ Give Germany the leadership you deserve. And what your descendants will be proud of.”   

Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine 22 days ago on Feb. 24 and vowed to take out Ukraine's NATO-sponsored military and eliminate anti-Russian ultra-nationalists from the country's military and governing structures, what he termed the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.    

Since then, Putin's army has come up against fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces who have become much better equipped and trained with the help of the United States since Washington helped install a pro-Western government in Kyiv during the so-called “Maidan Revolution.”    

The Maidan Revolution events in Ukraine over the winter of 2013-2014 saw Ukraine make a turn away from Russia and embrace NATO, a shift that deeply angered the Kremlin.    

Following the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Russian president in February 2014, Putin ordered Russian troops to annex Crimea and then he supported an armed rebellion by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.    

That war in Donbas was still ongoing without any sign of being resolved when Putin launched his invasion. He used the long-running Donbas conflict as the reason for his brutal invasion of Ukraine.  

The invasion has brought the world to the brink of a catastrophic war breaking out between Russia and NATO, but so far U.S. President Joe Biden has said he does not want to send American warplanes into Ukraine to defend the country's army, warning that would kick off World War III.    

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

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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