Biden calls Putin a 'war criminal' after signing off on $800 million in new military aid: March 16 recap

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Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Wednesday, March 16. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Thursday, March 17, as Russia's invasion continues.

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that an additional $800 million in military aid will be sent to Ukraine, just hours after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's address to the U.S. Congress, a speech Biden called "convincing."

Biden said the U.S. is adding to its assistance, which now totals $1 billion just this week, to help "fend off Russia's assault."

"America is leading this effort, together with our allies and partners, providing enormous levels of security and humanitarian assistance that we're adding to today, and we're going to do more in the days and weeks ahead," he said, adding the fight is "about the right of people to determine their own future, about making sure Ukraine never will be a victory for Putin, no matter what advances he makes on the battlefield."

Biden, speaking for just over seven minutes early Wednesday afternoon, said the war in Ukraine is “a struggle that pits the appetites of an autocrat against humankind’s desire to be free.”

On a day when he called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal'' for the first time publicly, Biden also stressed the U.S. will not get involved militarily, but added that it will help Ukraine for as long as it takes.

"We're going to stay the course," he said, while warning, "This could be a long and difficult battle.''

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Earlier Wednesday, Zelenskyy gave an impassioned address to an overwhelmingly supportive Congress, pleading for more military support, a "no-fly" zone over his country and even tougher sanctions on Russia. Zelenskyy's presentation included a gripping video showing graphic images of the brutal human and property damage inflicted by the Russians as the invading forces continued their relentless attack.

In his virtual address — three weeks into his nation's fierce struggle to repel invading Russian troops — Zelenskyy drew parallels to horrific moments in American history to explain his country's plight and called on the U.S. to ramp up its aid to Ukraine.

"Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided, the destiny of our people," said Zelenskyy, who drew a standing ovation from Congress at the start of his speech from Kyiv. "Whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy."

Latest developments:

►Ukrainian military forces have hit the airport in Kherson, which Russian troops had seized early in the war, the General Staff said late Wednesday. It said the Russians were trying to remove any surviving military equipment.

►Ivan Fedorov, the 33-year-old mayor of the southeastern city of Melitopol (pop. 150,000), was freed from Russian captivity, Ukrainian officials said.

►The 2015 Ukrainian satirical comedy series "Servant of the People," which Zelenskyy starred in, is available on Netflix. Zelenskyy plays a teacher who unexpectedly becomes president after a video of him complaining about corruption goes viral.

►The International Chess Federation suspended the national teams of Russia and Belarus from participation in official tournaments "until further notice." Chess is extremely popular in Russia.

►Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law allowing foreign planes to be seized and used domestically, Russia's Tass News Agency reported. Most foreign airlines have paused service to Russia due to the war and sanctions.

►At least 103 children have died and more than 100 others have been injured, said Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova.

FULL COVERAGE: Latest updates, analysis, commentary on Ukraine

Biden calls Putin ‘a war criminal’ for the first time

For the first time in public, President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” for his continued assault on Ukraine, which has killed hundreds of civilians.

“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden said in response to a question from a reporter after delivering remarks at the White House on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Earlier in the afternoon, Biden authorized an additional $800 million in military aid for Ukraine. He vowed that the American people will be “steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin's immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations.”

“We are united in our abhorrence of Putin's depraved onslaught,” he said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president was “speaking from his heart and speaking from what you’ve seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator through his invasion of a foreign country.”

The State Department has said it is reviewing Russia's actions for potential war crimes, a legal process Psaki said is ongoing.

-- Joey Garrison

Missile strike destroys theater that served as shelter in besieged Mariupol

The fate of hundreds of Ukrainians hung in the air Wednesday as the Mariupol theater where they were sheltering was destroyed by Russian forces, Ukrainian authorities said.

There was no immediate word on deaths or injuries in what the Mariupol city council said was an airstrike on the theater. The word “children” in Russian was written in large white letters in front of and behind the theater, as shown by an image taken Monday by the Maxar space technology company, in what appeared to be an attempt to dissuade the Russians from targeting the theater.

Mariupol, a southern port city of 430,000, has been the site of some of the fiercest attacks since the invasion began Feb. 24. Local officials say missile strikes and shelling have killed more than 2,300 people, and a siege that has lasted more than two weeks has left people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.

Local authorities said Russian forces took hundreds of people hostage at a Mariupol hospital and were using them as human shields.

In central Kyiv, a 12-story apartment building burst into flames after being hit by shrapnel. And in the northern city of Chernihiv, 10 people were killed while standing in line for bread, the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office said.

Presidential adviser warns Russia not to deploy chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine

President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned a Russian counterpart against the use of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, the White House said Wednesday.

Sullivan "warned General (Nikolay) Patrushev about the consequences and implications of any possible Russian decision to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine," said a White House readout of a phone call with Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council.

Biden did not mention Russian threats of chemical and biological weapons during his remarks on U.S. assistance to Ukraine on Wednesday.

In the call, Sullivan repeated "the United States’ firm and clear opposition to Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine," the readout said.

It added: "Mr. Sullivan clearly laid out the United States’ commitment to continue imposing costs on Russia, to support the defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, in continued full coordination with our Allies and partners."

— David Jackson

Russia ponders how to replenish; Odesa now in its sights

Russian commanders are deliberating how to replace troops, equipment and aircraft they’ve lost in their invasion of Ukraine, a senior Defense Department official said Wednesday.

The losses mount daily due to spirited resistance from Ukrainian forces, said the official, who discussed intelligence assessments on condition of anonymity. However, the Russians still have the majority of the combat forces they deployed for the invasion.

The Russian advance on Ukraine’s major cities, including Kyiv, remains largely stalled. In the south, Russian naval vessels have begun shelling towns around the port city of Odesa, possibly in advance of an attack by ground forces, the official said.

Meantime, the United States and its allies continue to send weapons to Ukraine on a daily basis, the official said. The latest shipment of war materiel, announced Wednesday by President Joe Biden, includes 100 drones. The official indicated the drones will be armed, saying they will “deliver a punch.”

U.S. Defense officials are working with other European countries to provide Ukraine with air defense systems. Among those systems are S-300 surface-to-air missiles launchers, according to a congressional source.

-- Tom Vanden Brook

Biden: We're providing up to $1 billion in new military assistance

President Joe Biden on Wednesday emphasized the strength of the new military assistance, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons aimed at helping Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.

Biden said the $800 million package, combined with a previous appropriation, adds up to $1 billion "just this week." In total, the administration has committed $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Biden took office.

The new package includes:

  • 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems

  • 2,000 Javelin, 1,000 light anti-armor weapons, and 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems

  • 100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems

  • 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns and 400 shotguns

  • Over 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition and grenade launcher and mortar rounds

  • 25,000 sets of body armor

  • 25,000 helmets

"More will be coming," Biden said.

— David Jackson

Biden: Humanitarian aid will continue to flow

President Joe Biden on Wednesday spelled out the $300 million in humanitarian assistance – “tens of thousands of tons of food, water, medicine and other basic supplies” – that the U.S. has provided both to Ukraine and the neighboring countries that have harbored their refugees. He said that aid, which is separate from the $800 million announced Wednesday in security assistance, would not stop.

“We're going to continue to mobilize humanitarian relief to support people within Ukraine and those who have been forced to flee Ukraine,” he said. “Our experts on the ground in Poland and Moldova and other neighboring countries are there to make real-time assessments of a rapidly evolving crisis to get urgently needed humanitarian supplies to the people in need when they need it.”

“And we will support Ukraine's economy with direct financial assistance as well,” Biden said, though he did not provided specifics.

— Ledyard King

Putin: The West ‘underestimates’ Russia, laments losses on battlefield

In a speech aired on Russian TV, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia’s so-called “special operation” in Ukraine is going according to plan, again declining to call it an invasion.

“The West thinks we will step back,” Putin said, according to a translation from Meduza, a Latvia-based media outlet. “The West does not understand Russia.”

Putin repeated a number of false claims about the invasion, including the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was developing “weapons of mass destruction” like nuclear and bioweapons. There is no evidence, though Russia watchers note the argument may be a reference to Putin’s continued anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Putin said that in enacting sanctions, the West is trying to “cancel” Russia and that measures targeting Russia’s Central Bank showed that foreign currency reserves can be “stolen.”

Signaling an even greater crackdown on Russian civil liberties at home, Putin called for a purge of “traitors” by “patriots,” arguing that “such a natural and necessary self-purification of the society will only strengthen our country."

— Matthew Brown

McConnell: US not doing enough, says it’s ‘depressing’ to compare Biden to Zelenskyy

After listening to Zelenskyy’s speech, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said President Joe Biden needs to “step up his game.”

“Were not doing enough, quickly enough to help the Ukrainians. And I think comparing Zelenskyy (to Biden) is depressing. President Biden needs to step up his game – right now – before it’s too late.”

The Kentucky Republican said he agrees with the president on one point: the U.S. shouldn’t be creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine due to concerns that it could potentially escalate a direct confrontation with Russia.

— Ledyard King

Lindsey Graham's resolution would pressure Biden on jets for Ukraine

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is planning to bring a resolution to the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon that would put pressure on the Biden administration to reverse course and accept Poland's proposal to provide up to 28 Soviet-built MiG-29 fighter jets to the U.S. to give to Ukraine.

Zelenskyy has asked the U.S. for more air power and Graham believes there’s enough bipartisan support to pass the nonbinding resolution calling for the administration to deliver the planes and change the trajectory of the war.

“Control of the skies is the missing link,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill shortly after listening to Zelenskyy's address to Congressional lawmakers. “It’s the biggest advantage the Russians have.”

— Ledyard King

NATO chief: Efforts aimed at stopping war between allies, Russia

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said his alliance’s main goal with the invasion of Ukraine is to keep it from escalating into “full-fledged war between NATO and Russia.”

Stoltenberg told CNN that he understands Zelenskyy’s desperation and pleas for help, noting that NATO has provided “significant support” to Ukraine.

“NATO's core responsibility, main responsibility is to protect 1 billion people living 30 NATO allied countries,” he said, adding that the alliance has “implemented the biggest reinforcements on collective defense since the end of the Cold War” to prevent Russian attacks from spilling over Ukraine’s borders.

Stoltenberg declined to give specifics on what military aid is being sent to Ukraine beyond describing “advanced systems also to protect them in the air, air defense systems, drones and other means to also deal with attacks that are faced within the airspace.” He said he welcomed President Joe Biden’s announcement on increased military aid from the U.S.

— Katie Wadington

Russian assault continues as Zelenskyy pleads US for more help

As Zelenskyy spoke to Congress, Kyiv residents huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew while Russian troops shelled neighborhoods, homes and businesses.

In central Kyiv, shrapnel from an artillery shell slammed into a 12-story apartment building, obliterating the top floor and igniting a fire, according to a statement and images released by the Kyiv emergency agency. The neighboring building was also damaged. The agency reported two victims, without elaborating.

Russian forces also have intensified fighting in Kyiv suburbs, notably around the town of Bucha in the northwest and a highway leading west, said Oleksiy Kuleba, head of the Kyiv region.

To the south, Russian forces also continued pounding beleaguered Mariupol, a seaport city of 430,000 that has faced three weeks of siege, leaving people struggling for essentials including food, water and heat. It has also has forced the digging of mass graves.

Remember Pearl Harbor': Zelenskyy invokes US tragedies as he pleads with Biden, Congress for help

Zelenskyy speech draws rave reviews from Congress

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Zelenskyy’s address to Congress differed from his past remarks in that it was “not a more desperate ask, but a more resolved ask.”

“Zelenskyy was very firm, very clear in what he needed,” Murkowski said. “And if his words were not enough, if you did not look at that video and feel that there is an obligation for not only the United States, but for countries of the world to come together in support for Ukraine, you had your eyes closed.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the U.S. needs to do more, specifically mentioned MIG-29’s, anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems and armed drones.

"There’s a powerful message that came out of that video," Portman said. "For all that we’ve done, it’s not enough to protect innocent lives."

“We need to do more and specifically we need to provide them the armaments they need at a minimum to be able to protect themselves,” he added.

Sen. Murphy questions public US debate over military support

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said he doesn’t think it’s wise for Congress and the Biden administration to broadcast disagreements over the best military support for Ukraine.

“I'm open to increasing our level of military commitment to Ukraine, I just don't think it is wise policy for all of those debates to play out in public in the United States Congress,” Murphy said.

“This is a bit of a strange way to prosecute a war to have daily, open, public debates about exactly which weapons and exactly which planes we're sending,” Murphy said. “Russia is not doing that, Russia is not having a public debate about how many planes they send in Ukraine and exactly what weapons systems they send in.”

Dylan Wells

Europe's human rights group expels Russia

The Council of Europe's ministers has decided to exclude Russia as a member following its invasion of Ukraine. The council, focused on human rights and democracy, was founded after World War II and Russia joined in 1996, following the Soviet Union's collapse.

A day after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the group began to assess Russia's membership. On Tuesday, Russia informed the council it would be withdrawing and the ministers formally expelled Russia on Wednesday.

“As leaders of the Council of Europe we expressed on several occasions our firm condemnation of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine," the council said in a statement. "This unjustified and unprovoked aggression led to the decision of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly to initiate the procedure of expulsion."

Katie Wadington

Ukraine terrain adds to Russian military struggles

Russia’s invading troops are struggling with Ukrainian terrain, forcing them to remain on roads where Ukrainian forces have slowed their progress, according to British Defense Ministry assessment. The Russians have been reluctant to drive off-road in Ukraine, and Ukrainians have further stalled their advance by blowing up bridges, British defense attache Mick Smeath said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Russian warplanes have failed to control Ukrainian airspace, according to the British and U.S. military, further limiting the invaders’ ability to protect its ground forces.

“The tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have adeptly exploited Russia’s lack of maneuver, frustrating the Russian advance and inflicting heavy losses on the invading forces,” Smeath said in the statement.

Tom Vanden Brook

Zelenskyy calls for new alliance, U24

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for the creation of a “United for Peace” alliance of "responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflict immediately."

"We need to create new tools to respond quickly and stop the war the full scale Russian invasion of Ukraine," he said.

Dubbing it “U-24,” Zelenskyy referenced 24 nations that are actively working with Ukraine to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

– Matthew Brown

Zelenskyy asks US companies to pull out of Russia

Saying Russia is “flooded with our blood,” Zelenskyy called on U.S. companies to abandon their operations in Russia.

As he made his address to a joint session of Congress, the Ukrainian president asked for more U.S. sanctions against the Kremlin and to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

“We propose that the United States sanctions all politicians in the Russian federation who remain in their offices and do not cut ties with those who are responsible for the aggression against Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.

– Rick Rouan

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, greets Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova as they arrive to hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speak to the U.S. Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, greets Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova as they arrive to hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speak to the U.S. Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Blinken: Russia, Ukraine peace deal must be 'irreversible'

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed that a diplomatic solution ending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will require “irreversible” moves on Moscow’s part should global backlash to the conflict end.

“We will want to make sure, (the Ukrainians) will want to make sure, that anything that’s done is in effect irreversible. That this can’t happen again,” Blinken said during an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Blinken left the door open to lifting crippling Western sanctions on Russia’s economy should the invasion end while cautioning that the moves are already making global business and finance hesitant of investing in Russia in the long term.

“If the war ends, Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty are restored then many of the tools that we’re using to get to that result — of course, that’s the purpose of them, they’re not designed to be permanent,” Blinken said.

Blinken declined to say whether the U.S. is in active communication with the Kremlin over Putin's invasion but said “there are always ways of communicating” should it be necessary.

Matthew Brown

Mom who fled Ukraine now worries about life in US: 'I don't know what to do'

Last week, single mom Olga Kovalchuk was hunkered down in a Ukraine basement with her children in a basement while bombs and missiles rained over Cherkasy, a city of 278,000 on the Dnieper River.

This week, they are in a foreign land – San Diego – where Kovalchuk has no place to live, no relatives, no job. But her kids are safe.

Like more than 3 million other Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, the 37-year-old says she is simultaneously looking back and ahead. In Ukraine, a career as an interpreter allowed Kovalchuk to work mostly from home, looking after the children. Now, the kids will need to find schools, learn English, adapt to a new culture.

“I was very angry. I didn’t want to leave. I’m a patriot," she says, adding that she had to go "to save the lives of our children. Still, sometimes I feel shame because I left." Read more here.

Dennis Wagner

International students trapped at Ukraine university finally get home

International students who had been studying at Ukraine's Sumy State University have finally returned to their home countries after being trapped in the school's six hostels for two weeks with little food and water as the war raged.

The students — from India, Nigeria, Turkey and South Africa, among other countries — eventually found their way home over the course of last week and weekend after many days of travel by bus, train and plane throughout Ukraine and across borders.

Students had turned to social media to plead for help, using the hashtag “SaveSumyStudents.” But with limited access to electricity, calling attention to their plight was also difficult.

"We never had a plan, and every method of communication was lost, I couldn't communicate with my parents," said Samuel Olaniyan, a fourth-year student who returned to Nigeria a few days ago. "It was very, very scary." Read more here.

Christine Fernando and Cady Stanton

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine recap: Biden calls Putin 'war criminal', pledges $800M