Slovakia expels three Russian embassy staff


Tensions remained high and fighting raged in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol as NATO allies prepared to meet to map out next steps in efforts to halt Russia’s assault on Ukraine following the US government’s official statement of “war crimes” committed by some of the invading forces.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press release on March 23 that “today I can announce that, based on information currently available, the US government believes that members of Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.”

“Since launching his unprovoked and unjust war of choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed unrelenting violence that has caused death and destruction across Ukraine,” he said, pointing in particular to the attacks on civilian sites in Mariupol.

US President Joe Biden and the Pentagon, as well as European and Ukrainian leaders, have made similar references in recent days in reaction to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, but it was the first time Washington had made these allegations in official remarks.

Blinken released the statement during a trip with Biden, who landed in Brussels late March 23 ahead of a special session with NATO allies on March 24, with the White House saying it will use the opportunity to announce new sanctions against Moscow.

On the same day, the European Union will host a summit to discuss Ukraine, while leaders of the G7 group of wealthy nations are also due to meet in the Belgian capital.

Biden is due to give a press conference after the March 24 meeting and then travel to Poland for talks with leaders in that country, which has hosted the bulk of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the fighting.

Fierce fighting continued in the beleaguered port of Mariupol and around Kyiv, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy continued his high-profile campaign to pressure the international community to step up support for his embattled country in its battle against a brutal Russian invasion.

Zelenskiy chastised the United Nations on March 24 for its failure to prevent Moscow’s unprovoked attack, even as the General Assembly prepared to vote on a new resolution condemning Russia’s actions and calling for humanitarian aid to avoid another disaster.

Zelenskiy also continued his video link tour of world legislatures, reminiscing about World War I from Verdun to the French parliament amid the relentless Russian devastation of the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Nearly a month after Russia invaded its neighbour, pitched battles across Ukraine have driven nearly 4 million civilians out of the country and left tens of thousands stranded in cities without public services and without food supply, creating what the Red Cross has called “apocalyptic” conditions.

Addressing the Japanese parliament on March 23, Zelenskiy criticized the UN’s lack of response to the Moscow invasion, blaming it largely on the fundamental set-up of the world body, which allowed the Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, to block any meaningful condemnation or action regarding its invasion of Ukraine. .

“Neither the United Nations nor the UN Security Council has worked. Reforms are needed,” the Ukrainian leader told Japanese lawmakers in an address via video link.

“We need a tool to preemptively ensure global security. Existing international organizations do not work for this purpose, so we need to develop a new preventive tool that can actually stop invasions,” Zelenskiy added.

WATCH: As Russian forces continue to shell the port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, an estimated 300,000 trapped residents struggle to survive. Food is running out and there is no running water or electricity in the besieged city, surrounded by Russian forces.

The UN General Assembly was preparing to meet on March 23 to discuss the war in Ukraine and a Kyiv-drafted humanitarian resolution. Unlike the Security Council – where Russia, along with other permanent members, holds veto power – no country can block a resolution in the General Assembly.

NATO, the United States and most other Western allies have said they will not send troops to Ukraine, but instead have launched a series of crippling sanctions against the Russian economy and those around the Russian president. Vladimir Poutine.

Leaders of the security alliance, including US President Joe Biden, will meet in Brussels on March 24 for an extraordinary meeting, with the White House saying it will use the occasion to announce new sanctions against Moscow.

On the same day, the European Union will host a summit to discuss Ukraine, while leaders of the G7 group of wealthy nations are also due to meet in the Belgian capital.

Despite sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Moscow, the Red Cross says the situation is becoming dire in parts of Ukraine.

Mariupol, which had a population of 400,000 before the war, was reduced to rubble, with thousands of civilians dead and many more seeking a way out of the city to safety.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, was in Moscow on March 23 to pressure officials to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to hard-hit areas.

“The devastation caused by the conflict in recent weeks…has been immense,” Maurer said. “There are practical steps guided by international humanitarian law that parties must take to limit suffering.

Russian forces have battled tougher-than-expected Ukrainian resistance across the country, from both the military and ordinary citizens.

Moscow has not provided an update on casualty figures since the start of the invasion, when it said on March 2 that 498 soldiers had been killed.

However, a NATO official told AP that the Russian death toll is likely to be between 7,000 and 14,000, although figures from both sides are impossible to confirm independently.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a tweet on March 23 that more than 15,000 Russian soldiers had died in the fighting.

For the past two weeks, Russia has attempted to encircle Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of ​​Azov and the most contentious battleground of the war so far.

A senior US defense official told AP that Russian ground forces appear to be digging in and establishing defensive positions about 15 to 20 kilometers from kyiv.

The official said those troops no longer appeared to be attempting to advance into the capital amid fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Instead, the official said, Russian troops are focusing more on the eastern regions, especially around the breakaway parts of Lugansk and Donetsk, with the possible aim of cutting off Ukrainian troops in those areas and preventing them from return west.

In the northern town of Chernihiv, Current Times reporter Oleksandr Kotenko said people were struggling to make ends meet under the constant shelling. Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

“There has been no electricity, water or gas for more than two weeks. In some places people cook on the street. There was no connection for a week. Yesterday it was restored. But you can’t charge phones, so people don’t know what’s going on in the city,” he said.

Amid fierce resistance encountered by Russian forces, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons, but said Russia would only do so if faced with an “existential threat”.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Putin announced on February 28 that he had put the country’s strategic nuclear forces on high alert, triggering global alarm.

“We have a concept of internal security, and it’s public. You can read all the reasons why nuclear weapons are used,” Peskov told CNN on March 22. “So if it’s an existential threat to our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called Moscow’s rhetoric about the potential use of nuclear weapons “dangerous”.

“That’s not the way a responsible nuclear power should act,” he told reporters, but added that Pentagon officials “have seen nothing that would lead us to conclude that we need to change our strategic deterrent posture”.

Intermittent talks between the two sides have continued, with little to no progress reported.

In a video address early March 23, Zelenskiy told Ukrainians that negotiations with Russia were difficult and sometimes confrontational, but he added that “step by step we are moving forward.”

The humanitarian crisis has continued unabated in Ukraine, with the United Nations estimating that more than 3.6 million people have crossed Ukraine’s borders into neighboring countries, most of them arriving in Poland, a member of NATO and the European Union.

With reports from AP and Reuters

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