Live updates: New phase of Ukraine war? Russia shifts focus
Russian forces in Ukraine appear to have shifted their focus from a ground offensive aimed at Kyiv to instead prioritizing what Moscow calls the liberation of the contested Donbas region, suggesting a new phase of the war.
It appears too early to know whether this means President Vladimir Putin has scaled back his ambitions in Ukraine, but Russian military moves this week indicate a recognition of the surprisingly stout Ukrainian resistance. Russian-backed separatists have controlled part of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday again appealed to Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but he said Ukraine would not agree to give up any of its territory for the sake of peace.
Putin’s forces are under great strain in many parts of the country, and the United States and other countries are accelerating their transfer of arms and supplies to Ukraine. In recent days, U.S. officials have said they see evidence of Ukrainian defenders going on the offensive in a limited way in some areas.
Putting a positive face on it all, the deputy chief of the Russian general staff said his forces had largely achieved the “main objectives” of the first phase of what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— The Associated Press has independently documented at least 34 assaults on Ukrainian medical facilities by Russian forces
— U.S. President Joe Biden visits American troops in Poland, a complex ally at Ukraine’s doorstep
— Russian President Vladimir Putin faces stark choices in Ukraine invasion as armed forces stall
— Ukraine says 300 dead in airstrike on theater in Mariupol; hunger stalking besieged areas
— Some prominent Russians quit jobs, refuse to support the war on Ukraine
— EU, US announce partnership to undercut Russian energy
— A vast apparatus is being built to gather and preserve evidence of potential violations of international laws of war for possible prosecutions
Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage
LVIV, Ukraine — Even as the conflict rages, a vast apparatus is being built to gather and preserve evidence of potential war crimes.
Less than a month after Putin’s order to drop the first bombs on his neighbor, the United States declared that Russian forces were violating international laws of war that were written after World War II. But it remains far from clear who will be held accountable and how.
Possible war crimes that have been reported in Ukraine include destroying homes, firing on civilians as they evacuate through safe corridors, targeting hospitals, using indiscriminate weapons like cluster bombs in civilian areas, attacking nuclear power plants and intentionally blocking access to humanitarian aid or food and water.
But intention matters. Destroying a hospital alone is not evidence of a war crime. Prosecutors would have to show that the attack was intentional or at least reckless.
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff is calling on the West to create a new lend-lease program for Ukraine, referring to the World War II effort that sent U.S. supplies to the Soviet Union to help it fight Nazi Germany.
“We need a full lend lease,” Andriy Yermak said in an address late Friday. “Today Ukraine is the holy grail of Europe, and without exaggeration Ukraine is reviving those principles that gave life to current Western civilization.”
He said what Ukraine needs most is real-time intelligence and heavy weapons.
Yermak also repeated the Ukrainian president’s calls for help in closing the skies over Ukraine to stop Russian bombing and missile attacks. The West has refused to impose a no-fly zone for fear of widening the war.
He said options include supplying Ukraine with air defense systems or fighter jets, or creating an “air police force to protect civilian infrastructure.”
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has again appealed to Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but says Ukraine would not agree to give up any of its territory for the sake of peace.
In his nightly video address to the nation Friday, Zelenskyy appeared to be responding to Col. Gen Sergei Rudskoi, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, who said Russian forces would now focus on “the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.”
Russian-backed separatists have controlled part of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since 2014, and Russian forces have been battling to seize more of the region from Ukraine, including the besieged city of Mariupol.
Rudskoi’s statement also was a suggestion that Russia may be backing away from trying to take Kyiv and other major cities where its offensive has stalled. Zelenskyy noted that Russian forces have lost thousands of troops but still haven’t been able to take Kyiv or Kharkiv, the second-largest city.
LVIV, Ukraine — The Associated Press has independently documented at least 34 assaults on Ukrainian medical facilities by Russian forces.
AP journalists in Ukraine have seen firsthand the deadly results of Russian strikes on civilian targets, including the final moments of children whose bodies were shredded by shrapnel and dozens of corpses heaped into mass graves.
AP journalists outside Ukraine have confirmed the details of other attacks by interviewing survivors and independently verifying war zone videos and photos posted online. The accounting is part of the War Crimes Watch Ukraine project, a broader effort by AP and PBS “Frontline.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirms at least 1,035 civilians, including 90 children, have died and another 1,650 civilians have been wounded since the war started a month ago. Those numbers are certainly an undercount.
BRUSSELS — French President Emmanuel Macron called “unacceptable” the publication on Twitter of “propaganda” caricatures by the Russian Embassy in Paris.
Russia’s ambassador to France was summoned Friday to the French Foreign Ministry over the issue. The two posts have since been removed.
“It was a fault. It has been corrected. I hope it won’t happen again,” Macron said in a news conference in Brussels.
One of the caricatures showed a character called “Europe” lying on a table while others representing the United States and the European Union were injecting the body with syringes marked “Russophobia,” “Neo-Nazism” and “Sanctions.” The other showed kneeling Europeans licking the buttocks of a man representing the U.S.
WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. defense official says Russia’s military advance on Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv appears to have halted as it turns its focus to fighting elsewhere in the country.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe an internal U.S. military assessment of the war, said Friday that Russia appears to be concentrating more on fighting for control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region rather than its ground offensive aimed at capturing Kyiv, at least for now.
The Kremlin seemed to confirm the shift Friday. Col.-Gen Sergei Rudskoi, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, said that the main objective of the first stage of the operation — reducing Ukraine’s fighting capacity — has “generally been accomplished,” allowing Russian forces to focus on “the main goal, liberation of Donbas.”
The Donbas is the largely Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland of Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
— AP Military writer Robert Burns
WARSAW, Poland – Polish President Andrzej Duda says he regrets not being able to welcome U.S. President Joe Biden on his arrival to Poland because his plane malfunctioned and had to make an emergency landing.
Duda was flying to Rzeszow airport, in southeastern Poland, on Friday to greet Biden but about ten minutes into the flight, the flight crew said there was a problem and the plane had to return to Warsaw.
Duda and the delegation took another plane, but arrived in Rzeszow well after Biden had landed and there was no welcoming ceremony. Duda said he didn’t question the pilot’s decision. A special commission for air incidents will look into the plane’s malfunction.
In 2010, Poland’s then-president, Lech Kaczynski and a delegation of 95 were killed in a plane crash in Russia, as the pilots tried landing in poor visibility at a rudimentary airport.
STOCKHOLM — Spotify is halting its services in Russia in light of the country’s strict new censorship law, which it says puts its employees and possibly even listeners at risk.
The Swedish music streaming company’s move comes after other companies pulled out of Russia due to its censorship law. The statute imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years for those spreading information that goes against the Russian government’s narrative on the war.
Netflix and TikTok suspended most of their services in the country earlier this month. U.S. credit card companies Visa, Mastercard and American Express all said over the weekend they would cut service in Russia.
South Korea’s Samsung Electronics said it would halt product shipments to the country, joining other big tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel and Dell.
ROME — Pope Francis has presided over a special prayer for Ukraine that harked back to a century-old apocalyptic prophecy about peace and Russia.
An estimated 3,500 people, including cardinals, ambassadors and pilgrims, attended the service at St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday.
The special ritual — of deep spiritual importance to many Catholics and a source of fascination to others — was Francis’ latest effort to rally prayers for an end to the war.
The pope has yet to publicly condemn Russia by name, though his denunciations have grown increasingly outraged.
FRANKFURT, Germany -- More than 130 refugees from Ukraine have arrived at a German airport, the first of 2,500 due to arrive via Moldova.
More than 376,000 people fleeing the war in Ukraine have arrived in Moldova, an influx that’s been a challenge for the small, former Soviet republic, which is wedged between Ukraine and Romania.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said Germany is working with allies to airlift refugees to countries farther away from the war.
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said in a statement that Germany “can be a hub for fair distribution in Europe” of refugees.
More than 3.7 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion started a month ago.
LONDON — Author J.K. Rowling is pushing back after Russian President Vladimir Putin dragged her into a rant against Western efforts to “cancel” Russian culture.
“Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics,” the Harry Potter author said Friday in a tweet linked to an article about jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny.
Putin earlier compared recent Western criticism of Russia with efforts to “cancel” Rowling over her views on transgender issues. Rowling has been criticized after saying she supported transgender rights but did not believe in “erasing” the concept of biological sex.
“The notorious cancel culture has become a cancellation of culture. Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov are excluded from concert posters, and Russian writers and their books are also banned,” Putin said during a videoconference with cultural figures.
RZESZOW, Poland — President Joe Biden has given a pep talk to U.S. troops stationed in Poland near the border with Ukraine.
Biden said he wanted to visit Friday to thank members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division for their service.
The president told the fatigue-clad men and women that it’s “not hyperbole” when he says they are the “finest fighting force in the world.”
Biden visited some troops at lunch at their temporary headquarters in Rzeszow and chowed down on pizza. He also visited others who were getting haircuts at the barbershop.
Poland is the second stop on Biden’s four-day trip to Europe. He’s scheduled Saturday to meet separately with Poland’s president and Ukrainian refugees before he heads back to Washington.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Four Nordic energy companies say they are ready to help the three Baltic nations in the event Russia curbs or completely cuts electricity exports to its smaller neighbors.
Denmark’s Energinet, Statnett of Norway, Sweden’s Svenska kraftnat and Fingrid Oyj of Finland said in a statement they’ve “secured routines and identified eventual ambiguities in a scenario where the Baltics are disconnected from the Russian grid.”
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are still reliant on their Russian neighbor for much of their electricity needs.
NEW YORK — The deputy head of Russia’s military general staff says that 1,351 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine.
Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi also said Friday that 3,825 have been wounded.
NATO estimated on Wednesday that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in four weeks of war in Ukraine.
The Russian figure did not appear to include the Moscow-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, and it was not clear whether the toll encompassed Russian forces not part of the Defense Ministry, such as the National Guard.
MEDYKA, Poland -- Refugees from the war in Ukraine are among those who will be watching the visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to Poland, which began on Friday afternoon with a stop in the eastern Polish city of Rzeszow.
Some hope the visit might bring concrete steps to help their homeland as it is under attack.
Lyra Syniavska, 42, from Lviv, said that Ukrainians expect more help than what they have received so far.
“We are getting a lot of help now, really a lot. But our people are still suffering, especially those who lives in the eastern part (of Ukraine),” she said.
Alina Sylkina, 26, from the eastern Luhansk region, says she wishes NATO would close the airspace over Ukraine -- though the alliance has said it won’t take that step.
During his visit to Rzeszow, Biden will be briefed on the humanitarian response to the refugees streaming out of Ukraine. He will also meet U.S. service members. Biden is due in Warsaw on Saturday.
VILNIUS, Lithuania — An exhibition of photos of civilian victims and shelling in Kyiv and Mariupol has been put up at the Vilnius railway station so that travelers on trains crossing Lithuania for the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad will see the images.
The Lithuanian railway said Friday that the 24 photographs were selected by the Lithuanian Press Photographers Club. A text on the photos says in Russian that President Vladimir “Putin is killing innocent people in Ukraine today. Are you OK with that?”
Lithuanian Railways CEO Egidijus Lazauskas said that the exhibition is a symbolic show of support.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Finland’s national railway company says it will suspend services between Helsinki and the Russian city of St. Petersburg from this weekend, closing one of the last public transport routes for Russians who want to reach the European Union.
The state-owned VR said only the morning train from Helsinki to St Petersburg will be operated on Sunday while the afternoon train will be cancelled.
Both services from St Petersburg will be operated. After that, trains will be suspended until further notice. VR said customers can cancel their tickets at no cost.
GENEVA — The U.N. human rights office says its strict methodology in counting casualties in Ukraine’s conflict has yielded “very few” confirmed casualties in Mariupol, largely because of difficulties getting access in and information out of the besieged port city.
Matilda Bogner, who heads the rights office’s Ukraine branch, noted that council leaders in Mariupol have estimated more than 2,000 civilian deaths in the city following Russia’s military invasion on Feb. 24.
Overall, the rights office has counted at least 1,035 civilians killed in Ukraine and 1,650 injured but Bogner said it doesn’t have a “the full picture of locations that have seen intense fighting, in particular Mariupol and Volnovakha.” The office has acknowledged that its tally is likely to underestimate the actual toll.
MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Russia is facing total war declared by the West.
Lavrov said at a meeting on Friday that “a real hybrid war, total war was declared on us.” He said the goal was “to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy, and Russia on the whole.”
During the first month of what Russia describes as a “special military operation” in Ukraine, the West imposed tough measures targeting Russia’s economy and financial system as well as President Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.
Despite that, Lavrov said Russia was not isolated. “We have many friends, allies, partners in the world,” he said.
KYIV, Ukraine — Mariupol’s city government says the Kremlin’s main political party has opened a political office in a shopping mall on the outskirts of the besieged city.
According to the post on the city’s Telegram channel, the United Russia office is distributing promotional materials as well as mobile phone cards for an operator that functions in the nearby Russia-backed separatist regions.
Mariupol’s communication links have been all but severed since the siege began in early March. Cell phone, television and radio towers have been targeted in Russian airstrikes and artillery barrages.
KYIV, Ukraine — The government of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol says 300 people died in a Russian airstrike on March 16 on a theater being used as a bomb shelter.
The post Friday on the city government Telegram channel cited eyewitnesses for the toll of “about 300.” It was not immediately clear whether emergency workers had finished excavating the site or how the eyewitnesses arrived at the horrific death toll.
When the theater was struck, an enormous inscription reading “CHILDREN” was posted outside in Russian, intended to be visible from the skies above.
Soon after the airstrike, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said more than 1,300 people had been sheltering in the building.
BRUSSELS — The United States and the European Union have announced a new partnership to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy.
U.S. President Joe Biden asserted Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin uses energy to “coerce and manipulate his neighbors” and uses the profits from its sale to “drive his war machine.”
Biden said the partnership he announced jointly with a top European Union official will cut Europe’s dependence on Russian energy sources, as well as the continent’s demand for gas overall.
Under the plan, the U.S. and other nations will increase liquified natural gas exports to Europe by 15 billion cubic meters this year. Even larger shipments would be delivered in the future.
At the same time, they will try to keep their climate goals on track by powering gas infrastructure with clean energy and reducing methane leaks that can worsen global warming.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Ukraine and Russia appear to be making progress on four issues being negotiated for an end of the fighting but differences remain on two other key issues.
Speaking to reporters on his return from a NATO summit late Thursday, Erdogan said Kyiv has expressed readiness to give up on its wish to join NATO, is ready to accept Russian as an official language, and can also accept “certain concessions” concerning disarmament and “collective security.”
But Erdogan said Ukraine “is not so comfortable“ regarding Russian demands on Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and the eastern Donbas region, where it has recognized separatist entities as independent. His comments were reported by Hurriyet newspaper and other Turkish media on Friday.
NATO member Turkey has been trying to balance its relations with both Ukraine and Russia, positioning itself as a mediator between the two.
BERLIN — Germany’s economy minister says his country has forged contracts with new suppliers that will allow it to significantly reduce its reliance on Russian coal, gas and oil in the coming weeks.
Robert Habeck told reporters in Berlin on Friday that Russian oil will account for about 25% of Germany’s imports in the coming weeks, from currently about 35%. Habeck said imports of Russian coal will be halved from about 50% of Germany’s total to 25% in the coming weeks.
He said Germany also expects to be able to become almost entirely independent of Russian gas by mid-2024. To do this the government has secured the use of three “floating” terminals capable of regasifying LNG brought in by ship and is working hard to build permanent LNG terminals for long-term imports.
JERUSALEM — A Ukrainian who fled the country with her daughter has finished first among women in this year’s Jerusalem marathon.
Valentyna Veretska, 31, competed in Friday’s race after fleeing with her 11-year-old daughter from the southern city of Mykolaiv shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Her husband stayed behind.
Organizers say Veretska finished the 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) race in two hours, 45 minutes and 54 seconds. Ageze Guadie, 33, from Israel, finished first in the men’s category with a time of 2:37:17.
Veretska, 31, is ranked 444th worldwide among female marathon runners and most recently finished first in the October 2021 Tirana Marathon, according to World Athletics.
She was invited to take part in the Jerusalem marathon earlier this month. Organizers say around 40 Ukrainian immigrants and refugees competed among thousands of runners.
BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s prime minister on Friday rejected an emotional appeal from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to supply Ukraine with weapons and support sanctions on Russia’s energy sector.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in a video posted to social media that Zelenskyy’s requests were “against Hungary’s interests.”
He said 85% of Hungary’s gas and more than 60% of its oil comes from Russia, and that blocking Russian energy exports would force Hungarians to “pay the price of the war.”
The rejection came after Zelenskyy on Thursday addressed a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels where he specifically appealed to Orban, who is widely considered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU.
Hungary, alone among EU countries bordering Ukraine, has declined to supply its neighbor with weapons and refused to allow weapons shipments to cross its border into Ukraine.
KHARKIV, Ukraine — About half the population of the eastern city of Kharkiv has left, and food and other essentials are dwindling for those who stay behind. A line formed Thursday at an apartment block as neighbors waited for aid from the Red Cross.
“Among those who stayed, there are people who can walk on their own, but many who cannot walk, the elderly,” said Hanna Spitsyna, who distributed the food to the sound of explosions behind her.
Kharkiv has been under siege by Russian forces since the start of the invasion, with relentless shelling that has forced people to sleep in metro stations and in basements.
Ukraine’s government said shelling on a group of people awaiting aid elsewhere in the city killed six people on Thursday. It was not immediately possible to verify the allegation.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press show thick black smoke rising Thursday over the port in the Ukrainian city of Berdyansk, with a large ship on fire.
The timing of the photos correspond with what the Ukrainian navy described as a successful attack that saw a Russian landing craft ferrying armored vehicles to the city sink off the port.
The image also corresponds to online videos purportedly showing the attack at the port in the city held by Russia on the Sea of Azov.
LVIV, Ukraine – Russian forces fired two missiles late Thursday at a Ukrainian military unit on the outskirts of Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in the country, regional emergency services said.
The strikes destroyed buildings and set off two fires, it said, while the number of those killed and wounded was still being established.
Dnipro is west of the regions along the Russian border that have been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
LVIV, Ukraine — With the war headed into its second month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of hope and determination in his nighttime video address to the nation late Thursday.
“It is already night. But we are working,” he said in a quiet voice. “The country must move toward peace, move forward. With every day of our defense, we are getting closer to the peace that we need so much. We are getting closer to victory. … We can’t stop even for a minute. For every minute determines our fate, our future, whether we will live.”
He reported on his conversations that day with leaders of NATO and European Union countries gathered in Brussels, and their promises of even more sanctions on Russia.
“We need to look for peace,” he said. “Russia also needs to look for peace.”
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked EU leaders for working together to support Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia.
But he lamented that these steps weren’t taken earlier, saying there was a chance Russia would have thought twice about invading.
Zelenskyy, appearing by video from Kyiv, then appealed to the EU leaders, who had gathered Thursday in Brussels, to move quickly on Ukraine’s application to join the bloc. He appealed particularly to Hungary not to block Ukraine’s bid.
Hungarian President Viktor Orban is widely considered to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally among EU leaders.
BRUSSELS — European nations have reacted sharply to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to have “unfriendly” countries pay for its natural gas exports only in rubles.
Several EU leaders have come out saying it would be a gross violation of their contracts. From German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, they said they would not meet such demands.
The EU imports 90% of the natural gas used to generate electricity, heat homes and supply industry, with Russia supplying almost 40% of it.
Economists say Putin’s threat seems designed to try to bolster the ruble, which has collapsed against other currencies since Russia invaded Ukraine and Western countries responded with far-reaching sanctions against Moscow.