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Ukraine war escalates as Russia fires more missiles, Mariupol turns apocalyptic

Faced with growing troubles in its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has begun to launch more long-range missiles against Ukraine's military and continued to pound cities it has surrounded.

(CN) — In the fourth week of a war becoming ever more apocalyptic, Russia is starting to use more long-range missile attacks against military targets and continuing to bomb Ukrainian cities it has encircled.  

Each day brings new reports of deadly strikes on military barracks, ammunition depots and civilian buildings and a nonstop stream of horrific images of the corpses of civilians and soldiers, burning buildings, sobbing women, wounded children, blown-up tanks and downed aircraft, massive explosions and shell-shocked refugees carrying a few belongings.   

The horrors taking place – and captured and shared instantly to millions of people around the globe by smartphones, dash cams, security cameras, drones, television cameras, satellite imagery – have led the world to the brink of a major conflict and put it at risk of nuclear war.    

For now, the prospects of a ceasefire or peace seem very distant as the rhetoric on all sides continues to escalate along with a war that’s entered a kind of bloody stalemate as both sides inflict major losses. Russian forces are slowly advancing and surrounding several cities, but Ukrainian forces remain in possession of key cities – Kyiv, the capital, Kharkiv, the second-largest city, and Odessa, the country’s vital Black Sea port.      

Monday saw Russia use more long-range missiles, artillery and aerial bombs. On Saturday, Russia claimed it used a hypersonic missile to strike at an underground ammunition depot in western Ukraine. It used long-range precision strikes in recent days to kill scores of soldiers, including Western foreign volunteers, at an army base near the Polish border and to destroy a barracks near Nikolaiv in southern Ukraine, killing at least 50 soldiers.     

In the early morning hours of Monday, it hit a shopping center in Kyiv, killing at least eight people. Russian sources alleged Ukrainian forces were using the shopping center. It also pounded a military training center in Rivne in western Ukraine, wounding several people, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency.     

The most horrific events are taking place in Mariupol, a key southeastern port city on the Sea of Azov where fighting raged in the city center all weekend. On Monday, Kyiv rejected Moscow's ultimatum for it to surrender the city and the urban center of 430,000 people is being destroyed.   

“There can be no question of surrendering or laying down weapons,” said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.   

Ukrainians escaping from the besieged city of Mariupol along with other passengers from Zaporizhzhia gather on a train station platform after arriving in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Last Wednesday, a theater was struck where hundreds of people, perhaps even more than 1,000, were reportedly sheltering in basements. There has been no further information about how many people may be buried under the rubble. On Sunday, a school where about 400 people reportedly were sheltering was struck too. There has been little information about the potential victims there either. The fighting is hindering rescue efforts, city officials say.   

Images from Mariupol show a place where the majority of buildings are damaged by bombs and bullets and where bodies of dead soldiers and civilians lie in the streets.   

Ukrainian forces in Mariupol are affiliated with the hardcore Azov Battalion and there seems little likelihood they will surrender easily to Russian forces. Kyiv has said it cannot help those fighters left in the city.   

On Monday, Major Denys Prokopenko, an Azov commander, told CNN that 3,000 civilians have been killed in the city, according to Ukrinform.     

“The death toll among civilians is growing every day, and now it is more than 3,000,” he said, as posted on his Telegram channel. “But nobody knows the exact number because people are buried together in the same dump, without names. Many bodies are just outside in the streets without being buried. Some people are under the ruined buildings, buried alive.”   

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The Azov Battalion is made up of far-right ultranationalists with neo-Nazi links and formed in 2014 following the outbreak of an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas regions by pro-Russian separatists, many of whom advocated sympathies with the old Soviet Union and its dictator Joseph Stalin.   

The Azov Battalion’s neo-Nazi affiliations, and alleged abuses against ethnic Russians, were part of Putin’s pretext for the invasion. The battalion made Mariupol its headquarters in the eight-year-long Donbas war. Russian sources – backed by interviews with evacuees – allege Azov soldiers were responsible for atrocities during the siege of Mariupol and stopping civilians from leaving the city.    

Peace talks resumed on Monday but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has remained defiant and is refusing to make concessions, most significantly recognizing Russian occupation of regions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. On the issue of NATO membership, Zelenskyy’s government has both said it might consider becoming a NATO-neutral country but also repeatedly asked to become a member.    

“I'm ready for negotiations with [Russian President Vladimir Putin]. I was ready for the last two years. And I think that without negotiations we cannot end this war,” he told CNN. “I think that we have to use any format, any chance in order to have a possibility of negotiating, possibility of talking to Putin. But if these attempts fail, that would mean that this is a third World War.”   

In another sign of Zelenskyy’s hard approach when it comes those in Ukraine who might want to make concessions to the Kremlin to end the conflict, his government banned 11 opposition parties, including the Opposition Platform for Life, which came in second in the most recent elections winning 44 seats in the 450-seat parliament. He accused the parties of having links to Russia. Communist parties had previously been banned.    

The Kremlin doesn’t appear ready for a ceasefire.   

“The degree of progress in the negotiations is probably not as desirable and not as required by the dynamics of the development of the situation for the Ukrainian side,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, on Monday, according to RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency.   

Ukraine's military has proven to be a formidable force and military experts believe Putin underestimated its ability to resist. With a ceasefire looking unlikely any time soon, the fighting looks set to rage for many more days.   

NATO continues to funnel weapons into Ukraine as best it can with billions of dollars in aid. There are talks about increasing Western aid and support. Russia has said it will consider any foreign troops as “legitimate” targets.   

Europeans have welcomed more than 3.3 million Ukrainian refugees and are showing their support with protests, charity drives and the delivery of goods. A Dutch court granted early release from prison for two Ukrainian men imprisoned on human smuggling so they can return to fight against Russia, Euractiv, a news outlet, reported.     

Residents attempt repairs on the shattered windows of an apartment block damaged by a bombing the previous day in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, March 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

For its part, Russia is reportedly moving more troops and weaponry to Ukraine and there are fears that Belarusian troops may move across the border and join the war by disrupting the flow of NATO weapon supplies passing through western Ukraine. Belarus is under sanctions and some of its banks were kicked out of the dollar-dominated international banking system, just as has happened to Russian banks. Russia reportedly is also bringing in the Wagner Group, a notorious private military organization. Ukrainian intelligence services claimed Wagner mercenaries were given the assignment to assassinate Zelenskyy, as reported by British newspapers.   

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This week Western leaders are meeting and the European Union is considering to ban imports of Russian oil and natural gas. Such a step would be a major blow to Russia but it could cause severe economic pain in Europe and around the world by driving up the price of energy.   

The weekend saw some large demonstrations in Europe over the rise in fuel prices and European leaders are scrambling to tamp down discontent with government help. In Spain, tens of thousands of farmers descended on Madrid asking for help.   

U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to travel to Brussels and Poland this week to rally NATO allies and speak out against Putin's invasion.   

The Kremlin meanwhile is warning that Russia may break off diplomatic ties with Washington due to Biden's labeling Putin a “war criminal” and “dictator” last week. Putin’s mental stability has been questioned by many in the West too.

Russia’s also been accused of planning to use chemical weapons, forcing Ukrainian civilians into Russia against their will and placing them in concentration camps, targeting civilians, kidnapping city officials in cities they’ve captured, using indiscriminate cluster bombs and bombing civilian infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and administration buildings.  

On Monday, Russian troops were accused of firing stun grenades and opening fire on people in the southern city of Kherson protesting against the occupation of their city, as seen in videos shared on social media. Kherson was the first city to fall under Russian control.     

The EU’s top foreign affairs representative, Josep Borrell, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared on Monday that Russia is guilty of war crimes. 

“It's a destruction of people who are suffering incredibly,” Borrell said in calling the destruction of Mariupol a “massive war crime.” The “courts will have to decide, but for me these are clearly war crimes,” Baerbock said, according to Deutsche Welle, the German state broadcaster. 

The International Criminal Court at the Hague is compiling evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. For the U.S., calls for putting Putin and Russian generals on trial at court in the Hague is complicated by the fact that Washington is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty underpinning the court. The U.S. has stymied the court’s work to investigate possible war crimes committed by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.    

Russia, too, accuses Ukraine of war crimes and there is evidence that Ukrainian forces have shelled civilians in eastern Ukraine, used civilian infrastructure to attack Russian forces, killed alleged traitors without trial, mistreated captured Russian prisoners and blocked civilians from leaving besieged cities.  

Ukrainian officials and activists have also been recorded on state television calling for violence against Russian civilians and a Ukrainian military doctor told Ukraine-24 that he gave an order to castrate Russian prisoners, according to news reports. The doctor, Gennadiy Druzenko, later retracted his statement.  

The huge divide opening up between the West and Russia is getting even bigger with a Moscow court on Monday deciding that Facebook should be banned in Russia for being an “extremist activity.” Moscow has already banned many foreign media outlets and it has begun targeting Russians who speak out against the war. Russia is looking at seizing the assets of foreign companies and closed off its airspace to Western airlines.   

The West, too, has banned Russian media outlets, seized the assets of Russian oligarchs, including mansions and yachts, frozen the foreign currency reserves of Russia's Central Bank and imposed an economic blockade on Russia.   

Despite the West's unprecedented actions against Russia, many countries around the world, including China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and much of Africa and Latin America, are maintaining economic ties with Russia.   

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

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