Zelenskyy calls Mariupol terror a war crime; Russia uses first hypersonic missile: March 19 recap

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Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Saturday, March 19. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Sunday, March 20, as Russia's invasion continues.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has entered its fourth week without capturing Kyiv or toppling Ukraine's government, but the bombardment of Ukrainian cities continues — a move western defense experts warn could be a sign of a cruel and intentional strategy.

The situation grew increasingly dire in the port city of Mariupol, where Russian forces pushed deeper Saturday in an area already experiencing what onlookers describe as a humanitarian crisis.

"Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it is wiped off the face of the earth,” Mariupol police officer Michail Vershnin said in a video filmed Friday that was authenticated by The Associated Press..

Fighting shut down the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Saturday, while other officials said forces that could help Ukraine defend Mariupol were facing massive resistance.

"There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said late Friday. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”

Britain’s defense intelligence chief described it as an emerging ”strategy of attrition.”

Russian forces are besieging Ukrainian cities, relying increasingly on bombarding them from a distance with artillery, missiles and air strikes, according to the Pentagon.

“This is likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis,” British Defense attache Mick Smeath said in a statement Saturday.

Meanwhile in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is reinforcing his control of domestic media, attempting to obscure high casualties amid fierce resistance encountered in his invasion of Ukraine, according to a British Defense Ministry intelligence estimate.

The assessment was echoed by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank, in a report this week. The group warned that since Russia's "lightning offensive designed to take the capital" had failed, the military appeared to be settling in for an extended campaign "designed to suffocate Ukraine."

REFUGEE EXODUS: Millions of refugees are fleeing Ukraine. Where are they going?

The strategy would likely involve attacking civilian areas, destroying cities and blocking off supplies, possibly leading to famine, according to the analysis. The organization later drew parallels to an artificial famine engineered by the Kremlin in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians — a Soviet attempt to "subjugate the Ukrainian nation."

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Latest developments:

►At least 847 civilians, including 64 children, have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner reported Saturday, but the agency said the actual figures are much higher. Agents also estimated the violence had left nearly 1,400 civilians injured, including 78 children.

►The Mariupol city council claimed Russian soldiers have forced several thousand city residents to be relocated to Russia. "The occupiers illegally took people out of the Levoberezhny district and a shelter in the building of a sports club, where more than a thousand people (mostly women and children) were hiding from constant bombing," the council said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

►Saturday, Ukraine and Russia agreed to open 10 humanitarian corridors to assist in the evacuation efforts, according to Ukraine's deputy prime minster.

►The U.N. migration agency says the fighting has displaced nearly 6.5 million people inside Ukraine, on top of the 3.2 million refugees who have already fled the country. Ukraine says thousands have been killed.

109 empty strollers placed outside the Lviv city council on March 18, 2022 commemorate the number of children killed in Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
109 empty strollers placed outside the Lviv city council on March 18, 2022 commemorate the number of children killed in Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

►The Ukraine military claims to have killed another Russian general – the fifth since the invasion began.

UK defense says Ukraine holding its airspace

The British defense ministry said the Ukrainian Air Force and air defense forces are “continuing to effectively defend Ukrainian airspace.”

“Russia has failed to gain control of the air and is largely relying on stand-off weapons launched from the relative safety of Russian airspace to strike targets within Ukraine,” the ministry said on Twitter. “Gaining control of the air was one of Russia’s principal objectives for the opening days of the conflict and their continued failure to do so has significantly blunted their operational progress.”

A Ukrainian military official meanwhile confirmed to a Ukrainian newspaper that Russian forces carried out a missile strike Friday on a missile and ammunition warehouse in the Delyatyn settlement of the Ivano-Frankivsk region in western Ukraine.

But Ukraine’s Air Forces spokesman Yurii Ihnat told Ukrainskaya Pravda on Saturday that it has not been confirmed that the missile was indeed a hypersonic Kinzhal.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said earlier Saturday that Russian military hit the underground warehouse in Delyatyn on Friday with the hypersonic Kinzhal missile in its first reported combat use. According to Russian officials, the Kinzhal, carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, has a range of up to 1,250 miles flies at 10 times the speed of sound.

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Zelenskyy says Mariupol terror a war crime

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the siege of Mariupol will go down in history for what he's calling war crimes by Russia's military.

“To do this to a peaceful city, what the occupiers did, is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” he said early Sunday in his nighttime video address to the nation.

Zelenskyy told Ukrainians the ongoing negotiations with Russia were “not simple or pleasant, but they are necessary.” He said he discussed the course of the talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday.

“Ukraine has always sought a peaceful solution. Moreover, we are interested in peace now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russia's military isn't even recovering the bodies of its soldiers in some places, Zelenskyy said.

“In places where there were especially fierce battles, the bodies of Russian soldiers simply pile up along our line of defense. And no one is collecting these bodies,” he said. He described as battle near Chornobayivka in the south, where Ukrainian forces held their positions and six times beat back the Russians, who just kept “sending their people to slaughter.”

- The Associated Press

'PLEASE HELP US': Weary voices call from Mariupol, where bodies line streets

Experts: Math of military occupation may be against Putin in Ukraine

Estimates of Russian deaths vary widely. Yet even conservative figures are in the low thousands. That’s a much faster pace than in previous Russian offensives, threatening support for the war among ordinary Russians. Russia had 64 deaths in five days of fighting during its 2008 war with Georgia. It lost about 15,000 in Afghanistan over 10 years, and more than 11,000 over years of fighting in Chechnya.

Russia’s number of dead and wounded in Ukraine is nearing the 10% benchmark of diminished combat effectiveness, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a researcher on Russia’s security at the Virginia-based CNA think tank. The reported battlefield deaths of four Russian generals — out of an estimated 20 in the fight — signal impaired command, he said.

Researchers tracking only those Russian equipment losses that were photographed or recorded on video say Russia has lost more than 1,500 tanks, trucks, mounted equipment and other heavy gear. Two out of three of those were captured or abandoned, signaling the failings of the Russian troops that let them go.

When it comes to the grinding job of capturing and holding cities, conventional military metrics suggest Russia needs a 5-to-1 advantage in urban fighting, analysts say. Meanwhile, the formula for ruling a restive territory in the face of armed opposition is 20 fighters for every 1,000 people — or 800,000 Russian troops for Ukraine’s more than 40 million people, said Michael Clarke, former head of the British-based Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank

That’s almost as many as Russia’s entire active-duty military of 900,000, and it means controlling substantial Ukrainian territory long term could take more resources than Russia can commit, he said.

“Unless the Russians intend to be completely genocidal — they could flatten all the major cities, and Ukrainians will rise up against Russian occupation — there will be just constant guerrilla war,” said Clarke.

- The Associated Press

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Ukrainians evacuated along 8 of 10 agreed upon humanitarian corridors

Evacuations from besieged cities proceeded Saturday along eight of 10 humanitarian corridors, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said. She said a total of 6,623 people were evacuated, including 4,128 from Mariupol who were taken northwest to Zaporizhzhia.

Russian forces pushed deeper into the besieged and battered port city of Mariupol, where heavy fighting on Saturday shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help.

The fall of Mariupol, the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, would mark a major battlefield advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside major cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War II.

-The Associated Press

Pope Francis visits Ukrainian children at Vatican hospital

Pope Francis has paid a visit to some of the Ukrainian children who escaped the Russian invasion and are currently being treated at the Vatican’s pediatric hospital in Rome.

The Vatican says the Bambino Gesu hospital is currently tending to 19 Ukrainian refugees, and that overall some 50 have passed through in recent weeks.

Some were suffering oncological, neurological and other problems before the war and fled in the early days. Others are being treated for wounds incurred as a result of the invasion.

The Vatican says Francis travelled the short distance up the hill to the hospital on Saturday afternoon. He met with all the young patients in their rooms before returning back to the Vatican.

Francis has spoken out about the “barbarity” of the war and especially the death and injury it has caused Ukrainian children.

-The Associated Press

Russia says it used hypersonic missiles for the first time

Russia said it used a hypersonic missile Friday to strike a western Ukraine target, the Interfax news agency reported.

Hypersonic missiles are missiles that can move at five times the speed of sound. The Russian military said these missiles are capable of hitting targets at a range of more than 1,200 miles, or roughly the distance from New York City to Kansas City.

"The Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aero ballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse containing missiles and aviation ammunition in the village of Deliatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region," the Russian defense ministry said Saturday.

This is the first known use of hypersonic missiles since Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

- Ana Faguy

The Drama Theatre is destroyed by shelling in Mariupol.
The Drama Theatre is destroyed by shelling in Mariupol.

On Poland visit, senators reaffirm US support for Ukraine, call Putin 'weak'

A bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators visited a refugee center in Poland on Saturday and met with officials from several countries to reinforce U.S. support for providing humanitarian assistance and lethal aid to Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion.

“This invasion of Russia into Ukraine is abhorrent and we cannot stand for it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “The goal is a free and sovereign Ukraine. We want peace, but we want a free and sovereign Ukraine.”

The lawmakers displayed part of a missile that struck close to the Polish border. Ernst said lawmakers didn’t visit the border, but did stop in at a refugee center where people rested before resettling elsewhere in Poland or other countries.

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“We do need to find new ways of getting much needed material into Ukraine as quickly as possible,” Ernst said after the delegation met with leaders from Poland, Ukraine and Germany.

Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard who served in the Iraq war and sits on the Armed Services Committee, said Russian President Vladimir Putin should be held accountable for the war and for targeting women, children and the elderly.

“It’s a truly weak man that targets children, elderly, women. Putin is a weak leader,” Ernst said. “He may be trying to project strength, but he is a weak man when he is going after weak individuals. We need to hold him accountable for the crimes that he is committing in Ukraine. This is abhorrent. It is an illegal war and he needs to held accountable.”

- Bart Jansen

UNICEF: 1.5M Ukrainian refugee children at risk of human trafficking

The more than 1.5 million children who have fled Ukraine as refugees face a higher risk for exploitation and trafficking, UNICEF said Saturday.

Women and children represent nearly all of the refugees who have left Ukraine since Feb. 24. UNICEF said that increases the proportion of potential trafficking victims.

"The war in Ukraine is leading to massive displacement and refugee flows - conditions that could lead to a significant spike in human trafficking and an acute child protection crisis," said Afshan Khan, UNICEF's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. "Displaced children are extremely vulnerable to being separated from their families, exploited, and trafficked. They need governments in the region to step up and put measures in place to keep them safe."

With more than 500 unaccompanied children identified crossing from Ukraine into Romania as of March 17, UNICEF warned that separated children are especially vulnerable to trafficking.

- Ana Faguy

Russian cosmonauts board space station in blue and yellow spacesuits

Three Russian cosmonauts on Friday boarded the International Space Station donning spacesuits in the Ukrainian flag's colors. Images of the cosmonauts wearing the striking yellow and blue suits sparked speculation online that the colors were worn in protest of Russia’s invasion.

The cosmonauts are Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov. They docked at the station in their Russian Soyuz spacecraft at 3:12 p.m. EDT and are scheduled to stay aboard the station until September, according to Space.com.

When asked about the colors in a live-streamed press conference after the docking, Artemyev indicated they were a coincidence, according to the BBC.

Freighter docks at the International Space Station
Freighter docks at the International Space Station

"It became our turn to pick a color," Artemyev said. "We had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it. That's why we had to wear yellow."

But some on social media weren’t convinced.

Former NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Terry Virts suggested on Twitter that the colors were in support of Ukraine, and astronomer Jonathan McDowell speculated on Twitter that the colors were meant as an homage to the cosmonauts’ alma mater, Bauman University, which also has blue and yellow colors.

There are seven people already on the orbiting lab, according to Space.com: cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency, and NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and Mark Vande Hei.

- Ella Lee

Zelenskyy calls on Swiss government to freeze assets of Russian oligarchs

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy urged the Swiss government to freeze the bank accounts of all Russian oligarchs, Swiss public broadcaster SRF reported.

Zelenskyy spoke to thousands of antiwar protestors in Bern, Switzerland via livestream on Saturday where he called on the Swiss government to take away privileges from those who are involved in the war.

More: Who are Russia's oligarchs and how do they play into the war in Ukraine?

"In your banks are the funds of the people who unleashed this war," Zelenskyy said. "Help to fight this. So that their funds are frozen."

The Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) estimates that Switzerland's secretive banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth.

- Ana Faguy

Former presidents Bush, Clinton lay flowers at Ukrainian church in Chicago

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush visited a Ukrainian church in Chicago this week.

The pair brought sunflowers to Saints Volodymyr & Olha Catholic Church. Chicago, a sister city of Kyiv, is home to many Ukrainian Americans.

Clinton shared a video of the visit on Twitter with the caption, "America stands united with the people of Ukraine in their fight for freedom and against oppression."

Bush posted the video on Instagram with the caption, "America stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they fight for their freedom and their future."

- Ana Faguy

6.5 million displaced within Ukraine, UN reports

Nearly 6.5 million people have been displaced inside Ukraine, the U.N. migration agency said Friday.

That's on top of the 3.3 million people who have crossed the Ukrainian borders since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which released the updated data in a paper issued Friday.

The paper noted that an additional 12 million people are thought to be stranded, unable to leave for security purposes or for lack of resources and information.

- Ana Faguy

A man hugs his wife next to an ambulance car that would evacuate her and her daughter to Poland on March 19, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine.
A man hugs his wife next to an ambulance car that would evacuate her and her daughter to Poland on March 19, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine.

Poland urges EU trade ban on Russia

Poland is recommending the European Union impose a total ban on trade with Russia.

Saturday, Polish Prime Minister Mateus Morawiecki proposed more stringent sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. He said that a trade blockade should be added "as soon as possible," and should include trade from Russia's seaports as well as land trade.

"Fully cutting off Russia's trade would further force Russia to consider whether it would be better to stop this cruel war," he said.

Tuesday the E.U. agreed to a fourth sanctions package that included restrictions on the Kremlin's military-industrial complex, an E.U. import ban on those steel products currently under EU safeguard measures and an E.U. export ban on luxury goods.

This comes as more American companies announce the suspension of business in Russia, putting a greater strain on the Russian economy. Friday Halliburton became the latest company to join that list.

- Ana Faguy

Ukraine: It will take 'years' to defuse unexploded shells, mines from war

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky says it will take years to defuse the unexploded ordnance once the Russian invasion is over.

Monastyrsky told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday that the country will need Western assistance to carry out the massive undertaking after the war.

“A huge number of shells and mines have been fired at Ukraine, and a large part haven’t exploded. They remain under the rubble and pose a real threat,” Monastyrsky said in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. “It will take years, not months, to defuse them.”

In addition to the unexploded Russian ordnance, Ukrainian troops have planted land mines at bridges, airports and other key locations to prevent the Russians from using them.

“We won’t be able to remove the mines from all that territory, so I asked our international partners and colleagues from the European Union and the United States to prepare groups of experts to demine the areas of combat and facilities that came under shelling,” Monastyrsky told the AP.

The Associated Press

Experts: Graham's call for Putin's assassination is 'dangerous' for US

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s continued calls that Putin be “taken out” are alarming researchers and academics who warn the South Carolina Republican’s comments are reckless because they could be interpreted as the U.S. disregarding international law and be used to fuel disinformation in Russia.

"There are so many dangerous aspects to his comments," said Anthony Arend, co-founder of the Institute for International Law & Politics at Georgetown University. "It sets the possible precedent that others will be able to look at the United States and say, 'Well, they're advocating it. Why don't we simply move to a foreign policy that more broadly incorporates assassinations or targeting regime leaders?'"

More: Lindsey Graham called for Putin's assassination. Even discussing it brings danger to US, experts say.

Nika Aleksejeva, a Latvia-based researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, warned Graham's comments fuel a Kremlin narrative that portrays the U.S. as a violent and lawless sponsor of terrorism out to get Russia.

"The U.S. is painted as the great evil in Russia," she said. "One of the disinformation narrative lines is that Ukraine is our brother nation, and Russia is forced to carry out this military operation because the U.S. made Ukraine go away from Russia – that the U.S. is to blame in all these problems that are now between Russia and Ukraine."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Graham, who tweeted in early March that "the only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out," doubled down on his comments Wednesday.

"Yeah, I hope he'll be taken out, one way or the other," he told reporters during a Capitol Hill news conference. “I don't care how they take him out. I don't care if we send him to the Hague and try him. I just want him to go.”

– Grace Hauck

Putin appears at large rally as troops press attack in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge flag-waving rally at a Moscow stadium Friday and lavished praise on his troops fighting in Ukraine, three weeks into the invasion that has led to heavier-than-expected Russian losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home.

“Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” the Russian president said of the Kremlin’s forces in a rare public appearance since the start of the war. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.

The show of support amid a burst of antiwar protests inside Russia led to allegations in some quarters that the rally — held officially to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine — was a manufactured display of patriotism.

Several Telegram channels critical of the Kremlin reported that students and employees of state institutions in a number of regions were ordered by their superiors to attend rallies and concerts marking the anniversary. Those reports could not be independently verified.

Moscow police said more than 200,000 people were in and around the Luzhniki stadium. The event included patriotic songs, including a performance of “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”

In response to the rally, American conservative commentator Sean Hannity suggested on his radio show that Putin was “channeling his inner Donald Trump,” Business Insider reported. During his Fox News show later in the day, Hannity again accused Putin of making his “best attempt to look like Donald Trump” at the rally.

Contributing: The Associated Press, Ella Lee

Zelenskyy says Russia is creating 'humanitarian catastrophe'

LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russian forces are blockading Ukraine’s largest cities to create a “humanitarian catastrophe” with the aim of persuading Ukrainians to cooperate with them.

He says Russians are preventing supplies from reaching surrounded cities in the center and southeast of the country.

“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation, filmed outside in Kyiv, with the presidential office in the lamplight behind him.

He said more than 9,000 people were able to leave besieged Mariupol in the past day, and in all more than 180,000 people have been able to flee to safety through humanitarian corridors.

He again appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold talks with him directly.

He noted that the 200,000 people Putin gathered in and around a Moscow stadium on Friday for a flag-waving rally was about the same number of Russian troops sent into Ukraine three weeks ago.

Zelenskyy then asked his audience to picture the stadium filled with the thousands of Russians who have been killed, wounded or maimed in the fighting.

— Associated Press

Jimmy Hill, American killed in Ukraine, stayed with sick partner

Even as Russian forces massed on the border with Ukraine and the U.S. government urged Americans to leave the country, Jimmy Hill didn't flee. Instead, he drove even closer to Russian territory in search of treatment for his life partner, who was sick.

James Whitney Hill, 67, was killed by Russian artillery fire in Ukraine this week, at least the second American to die there since the invasion began Feb. 24. Before his death, he touched lives around the world through teaching and storytelling, friends and family told USA TODAY.

"He had worked tirelessly to find her treatment and refused to leave her bedside when the invasion began in Ukraine," his family said in a statement Friday about his life partner, Irina Teslenko, who has multiple sclerosis. READ MORE.

– Grace Hauck

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine news Saturday: Ukrainians evacuate along humanitarian corridor