Russia Bombards Ukraine Cities and Accuses U.S. of ‘Economic War’

Russian forces bombarded Ukrainian cities, prevented hundreds of thousands of civilians from escaping and destroyed a maternity hospital on Wednesday, while the Kremlin accused the United States of waging “an economic war” against Russia.

The misery wrought by Russia’s Ukraine invasion on Feb. 24 deepened further in both countries — destruction and deprivation in Ukraine, and the toll of the West’s tightening vise grip on Russia’s economy.

Perilous conditions were getting worse in several Ukrainian cities where Russian forces were closing in, increasingly striking civilian targets and leaving people trapped without basic needs like water, food, heat and medicines. In the halting efforts to evacuate, thousands of people were able to flee the city of Sumy, but in other cities, for the fourth day in a row, Ukrainian officials said that Russian shelling thwarted most attempts to create safe corridors for escaping civilians.

Things were especially dire in the southern port of Mariupol, where Russian strikes hit several civilian buildings on Wednesday, including a maternity hospital, sending bloodied pregnant women fleeing into the cold. Hundreds of casualties have been reported, people have taken to cutting down trees to burn for heat and cooking, trenches have been dug for mass graves and local authorities have instructed residents on how to dispose of dead family members — wrap the bodies, tie the limbs and put them on the street.

Bodies were buried in a mass grave on Wednesday on the outskirts of Mariupol.Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

At the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant, seized by Russian troops in the days after President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the invasion, the outside electricity supply was cut off, threatening the ability to safeguard the nuclear waste stored there, the International Atomic Energy Agency said. For now, the plant has backup power and no radiation leaks have been detected, the agency said, but its warnings signaled that Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear accident in history, could once again pose a threat to the region.

The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia were expected to meet on Thursday for the first time since the invasion. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, host of the meeting, said Wednesday that he hoped it would “crack the door open to a permanent cease-fire,” but such a prospect remained uncertain at best.

Mr. Putin, seeking to regain Moscow’s lost sway over Ukraine, continued to demand that his neighbor unilaterally disarm and guarantee that it would never join the NATO alliance, conditions that Ukrainian and NATO officials have described as unacceptable.

The war has claimed thousands of lives and prompted more than two million people to leave Ukraine in less than two weeks, one of the swiftest and biggest refugee flows ever seen. The United Nations said Wednesday that its monitors had confirmed 516 civilian deaths and 908 injuries, acknowledging the figures were doubtless too low, partly because of the inability to count casualties in and around southeastern cities, like Mariupol, where fighting has been intense. Russia has acknowledged hundreds of military deaths, while Ukrainian officials have said the true numbers are in the thousands on both sides.

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard in Maidan Square in central Kyiv on Wednesday.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

U.S. intelligence agencies say Mr. Putin has been frustrated by the slow pace of the military advance and is likely to double down on using brute force, which could mean far more destruction and much higher civilian casualties. Russian forces have stepped up rocket, artillery and air attacks on cities, hitting a growing number of civilian targets; Ukrainian officials say the Kremlin, so far unable to win military victory, is instead trying to destroy Ukrainian morale.

Hospitals like the one in Mariupol have become exceedingly dangerous places to work or seek care. The World Health Organization has verified at least 18 attacks on Ukrainian health facilities and health workers, the organization’s director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Wednesday.

Russia’s Defense Ministry acknowledged that conscripts had been sent into battle in Ukraine, and that some were taken prisoner, contradicting Mr. Putin’s pledge that conscripts “are not participating and will not participate” in a war that he insists is not a war. There have been widespread reports of ill-prepared Russian soldiers not knowing until the last minute that they were to take part in an invasion.

To the surprise of Russian leaders, Western governments and even some Ukrainian commanders, Kyiv’s forces have resisted tenaciously. Russia’s formidable military had apparently not prepared for an extended fight, expecting a quick capitulation, and has run into repeated logistical problems.

Russia has sent mixed signals on whether its aims have shifted. Over the weekend, Mr. Putin said that continued resistance “called into question the very future of Ukrainian statehood” — an especially ominous warning from a leader who has claimed that Ukraine is a phony country and rightfully should be united with Russia.

Lada Svystovych, 22, showing her bullet wounds and bandaging from surgery while recovering in a hospital in Kyiv after being shot while trying to flee Irpin.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

But on Wednesday, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, insisted that Russia does not plan to “occupy Ukraine, destroy its statehood or overthrow its government.”

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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Chernobyl nuclear facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the defunct power plant had been disconnected from electricity, though there was no need for immediate alarm. A power loss could affect the facility’s ability to keep the water that cools radioactive material circulating and lead to safety issues.

Evacuation efforts. Russian and Ukrainian forces said they were working on a temporary agreement to allow evacuations from six cities. In Mariupol, attempts to negotiate a cease-fire have fallen apart amid artillery fire and bombing.

On the diplomatic front. Vice President Kamala Harris began a three-day trip to Poland and Romania, as the United States and its NATO allies urgently try to find a way to help Ukraine defend itself without getting pulled into a wider war against Russia.

The ruble’s descent. To prop up Russia’s currency, which has been declining as a result of Western-imposed sanctions, the Central Bank of Russia announced new rules for foreign-currency accounts in Russia, seemingly intended to curb people’s ability to convert rubles into other currencies.

A day after President Biden prohibited energy imports from Russia to the United States, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, accused Washington, which has hit Russia with an escalating series of sanctions, of declaring “an economic war” and told reporters, “you see the bacchanalia, the hostile bacchanalia, which the West has sown.”

U.S. and European financial penalties and restrictions are throttling banks and other businesses in Russia and in Belarus, its ally, limiting the Russian government’s ability to use its enormous foreign currency reserves, and impeding millions of Russians from using their credit cards, accessing their bank deposits or traveling abroad. Foreign assets of wealthy individuals and businesses allied with the Kremlin have been frozen. The European Union on Wednesday expanded the list of directly sanctioned people and organizations to nearly 1,000.

Rating agencies have sharply downgraded the Russian government’s credit, signaling that it may be unable to pay creditors. Fitch Ratings warned on Tuesday that in its view, “default is imminent.”

Hundreds of Western businesses — manufacturers, oil companies, retailers and fast-food chains like McDonald’s — have suspended operations in Russia; Mr. Peskov said Wednesday that he hoped the number of Russians left unemployed by the exodus “would not be in the millions.” Russian lawmakers are considering nationalizing the assets of foreign companies that leave in response to the war.

Ukrainian fighters with the Territorial Defense Forces being trained in first aid in Kyiv.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The ruble has dropped to its lowest levels in history — on Wednesday it traded around 130 to the dollar, compared to 76 a week before the invasion. The Russian stock market, which plummeted in response to the invasion and resulting sanctions, has been closed by regulators since the following day.

Russia’s central bank, trying to prop up the ruble’s value, limited withdrawals of foreign currency from Russian banks and prohibited banks from selling foreign currency.

In Washington, leaders of Congress on Wednesday finalized a $13.6 billion package of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, as the Western powers continued to funnel weapons into the country, and strengthen NATO defenses in countries bordering Russia. Vice President Kamala Harris left for a three-day trip to Poland and Romania, where she was to meet with some of the NATO leaders who have so far maintained a remarkably united front on countering Russia.

Britain said it would send more than 3,600 antitank weapons to Ukraine, and the Pentagon announced plans to position Patriot air defense missile batteries in Poland, relocating them from elsewhere in Europe. The allies have discussed whether and how to supply warplanes to Ukraine.

But NATO members have consistently said they would not send their own military forces into Ukraine, which would place them directly into a war with Russia, and for the same reason they have refused Ukraine’s request that they enforce a no-fly zone to deprive Russia of control of Ukrainian skies.

Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski from Istanbul, Valerie Hopkins and Marc Santora from Lviv, Ukraine, Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Julian E. Barnes, David E. Sanger and Catie Edmondson from Washington, Shashank Bengali and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Mike Ives from Seoul.

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