Ukraine’s satisfaction with Thursday’s successful sinking of Moscow, a guided missile cruiser, was dampened by the situation in Mariupol and a Russian warning that it would escalate attacks on Ukraine’s capital. Explosions were reported outside Kiev on Friday, with Russian forces saying in a statement that they were firing missiles at a suburban factory producing Ukrainian defense weapons, in retaliation for what it claimed were attempted Ukrainian attacks on border towns inside Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continued to pressure Western leaders to step up their efforts to isolate Russia. In a recent phone call with President Biden, Zelensky directly appealed to the United States to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, one of the most powerful and far-reaching sanctions in the U.S. arsenal, The Washington Post first reported.
While Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart that he was willing to explore a number of proposals to put more pressure on Moscow, he did not commit to specific actions, according to people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive dialogue between the two leaders.
Even during the Cold War, Washington refrained from designating the Soviet Union in this way, despite Moscow’s support for groups considered terrorist actors through the 1970s and 1980s.
Such a measure could have a number of effects, including the imposition of economic sanctions on dozens of other nations that continue to do business with Russia; freezing of Moscow’s assets in the United States, including real estate; and the ban on a number of dual-use exports.
The label, which requires a finding from the foreign minister, can be applied to any country that has “repeatedly supported international terrorist acts,” according to a Foreign Ministry fact sheet. The list mentions four countries: North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Syria.
When asked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly about US support for the nomination at a news conference last month, he said: “We are and we will look at everything.”
“Our focus is first and foremost on doing everything we can to help bring this war to a rapid end, to stop the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” Blinken told reporters at the Foreign Ministry.
The destruction of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet with home-grown Ukrainian weapons represented a profound symbolic victory for Ukraine and a significant blow to Russia’s naval capacity.
The shipwreck removed a vessel that Moscow will not be able to replace in the Ukrainian theater, according to the U.S. Defense Department, which spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the Pentagon. Russia has two other similar ships in its fleet, but none of them are based in the Black Sea. Turkey, which controls entry into the sea through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, has said it will only allow ships that already have a home port there.
Russia had previously acknowledged that the cruiser sank, but said only that it had been damaged by “heavy storms” and a fire.
Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, claimed further progress against Mariupol on Friday morning, saying its forces now had full control of the city’s Ilyich Iron and Steelworks. Separately, Ukraine’s Azov battalion is said to have a weak grip on the Azovstal steelworks, one of the last bastions in the city outside Russian control, where photographs from the site on Friday appeared to show smoke billowing from the heavy industrial area. .
Both steelworks are owned by Metinvest, a company controlled by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man.
“The city of Mariupol is no more,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, told CNN. “The city of Mariupol has been wiped off the face of the earth by the Russian Federation.”
Earlier this week, Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, described Mariupol as “an epicenter of terror” and renewed calls for safe evacuations of remaining civilians from the city. Its mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said that after mass evacuations and deaths, 50,000 to 70,000 people were left in Mariupol, whose population before the war was more than 400,000.
In a video speech Thursday night marking the 50th day, Zelensky said the defense of the country since February 24, the day the Russian invasion began, was an “achievement for millions of Ukrainians.”
“You have all become heroes. All Ukrainian men and women who resisted and did not give up,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky also took the opportunity to reiterate his thanks to the unnamed world leaders, whom he said have shown “great generosity” towards Ukraine, and to continue his criticism of those who “behaved as if they had no power.”
Biden announced this week an additional $ 800 million in U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine as Russia has assembled troops, military vehicles and equipment on both sides of its border with eastern Ukraine in preparation for an attack on the country’s eastern Donbas region.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Russia’s foreign ministry had sent a diplomatic note to the foreign ministry warning of “unpredictable consequences” if shipments did not stop. On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed the memo, saying similar demarches on arms shipments to Ukraine were being sent “to all countries,” the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
In Kherson, a city about 400 miles south of Kiev that was quickly captured by Russian forces during the first week after the invasion, at least 824 new graves were dug in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city between February 28 and April 15, according to latest satellite images analyzed by London-based nonprofit Center for Information Resilience (CIR).
The CIR has monitored a number of burial sites and cemeteries in Russian-occupied areas or areas where Russian forces are close by, said Benjamin Strick, the director of investigation. “It’s scary to think about how [civilians] died and what else is happening in those areas, Strick tells The Post.
Similar group recently stained mass graves in a forest near Chernihiv, a regional capital. New graves continued to be dug, even after the city was returned to Ukrainian control after weeks of Russian siege, according to images from Planet Lab.
Other allegations of atrocities have been harder to confirm. Kyiv Regional Police Chief Andriy Nyebytov claimed on Friday that officials had found more than 900 dead civilians in the region of about 3 million people in the wake of Russia’s withdrawal of its ground troops in the area earlier this month.
Although it has withdrawn from areas in the north, Russian construction continued in and around the Donbas region. Russian forces occupy territory just outside the city of Kharkiv, northwest of the region, where regional governor Oleh Synegubov on Friday claimed that the Russians had shelled a residential area and killed at least 10 people, including a 7-month-old baby, the Kyiv Independent reported.
In the same area, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had information that the Ukrainian military is planning to launch a missile attack on refugees massaging at a railway station in the city of Lozova, and then blaming the Russian army. One week ago, Russia allegedly launched a missile attack on the train station in the Donbas city of Kramatorsk, killing dozens of civilians. Russia has denied responsibility for the attack.
Ukrainian authorities are planning a provocation in Lozova “similar to the one in Kramatorsk to accuse Russian Federation soldiers of so-called war crimes,” Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the Russian National Defense Control Center, told Interfax.
New video footage and photos from the Luhansk region, which is part of the Donbas, show burnt corpses among the rubble from a nursing home that was destroyed last month. Regional Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Friday that Russian troops had shelled homes and infrastructure in the area, killing two civilians.
Meanwhile, the Moscow Foreign Ministry warned of “negative consequences” for European security if Sweden and Finland follow up on indications that they may want to join NATO.
“Why our Finnish and Swedish neighbors in the Baltic region should turn into a new frontier for confrontation between the NATO bloc and Russia is unclear,” said Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman. “The negative consequences for peace and stability in Northern Europe are obvious.”
Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who shares an 830-mile border with Russia, said her country would make a decision in the coming weeks. She said this after a visit on Wednesday to Sweden, which is considering abandoning decades of military neutrality and applying for NATO membership.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Ukraine’s declared desire to join NATO was a security threat to Russia and one of the reasons for the invasion. Ukraine has since said it would abandon its hopes of joining the alliance, but wanted “security guarantees” from other countries against Russian aggression in the future.
Zakharova acknowledged that “the election is up to the authorities in Sweden and Finland.”
“But they should also understand the consequences of such a move for our bilateral relations and the European security architecture as a whole, which is now in a state of crisis,” Zakharova added.
Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of Putin who serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said on Thursday that NATO enlargement would force Moscow to strengthen its forces, including nuclear forces, to “balance” military capabilities in the Baltic region.
Meanwhile, Russia’s telecoms regulator Roskomnadzor blocked the Russian – language website of the Moscow Times on Friday after the website published what authorities called a false report on riot police officers who refused to fight in Ukraine on April 4.
The Moscow Times said it had not been notified of the decision. Its English-language website remains online, and its Russian pages are available abroad and via VPN in Russia. Russia has blocked several foreign and domestic websites since its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are among those that have been blocked.
Adela Suliman, Joyce Lee, Jon Swaine, Amy Cheng, Atthar Mirza, Marisa Iati, David L. Stern, Timothy Bella, Meryl Kornfield, Paul Sonne, and Julian Duplain contributed to this report.