- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2022

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a stealth visit to Kyiv on Sunday night, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Russia’s messy invasion rumbled into its third month, ignoring calls for a cease-fire in observance of Orthodox Easter.

The arrival of Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin marked the highest-level trip to the Ukrainian capital by a U.S. delegation since the Russian invasion began. The Biden administration refused to comment on the visit amid tight security, but an adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy told Ukrainian TV that the meeting was underway.

The U.S. officials visited at the end of a weekend in which Mr. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainians accused Russian forces of continued targeting of civilians.

Moscow said the Russian military carried out successful strikes Sunday against a Ukrainian explosives factory, several artillery depots and hundreds of other targets.

Although Ukraine’s military staved off a Russian assault on Kyiv weeks ago, Mr. Zelenskyy said that he intended to press Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin for more powerful weapons — even after President Biden announced $800 million more in aid in the form of U.S. military equipment.

“You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes. We are expecting specific things and specific weapons,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in reference to Kyiv’s repeated requests since the invasion began for heavy weapons such as long-range air defense systems and warplanes.

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Ukrainians solemnly observed Orthodox Easter on Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said Russian forces used precision-guided missiles to destroy a factory making powder and explosives near Pavlohrad in central Ukraine in overnight strikes heading into the holiday.

The general also claimed Russian forces had struck several depots with artillery munitions and rockets in Barvinkove, Nova Dmytrivka, Ivanivka, Husarivka and Velyka Komyshuvakha in the Kharkiv region.

The most significant strategic developments Sunday were in Ukraine’s east. Russian forces were reported to have launched fresh airstrikes on a steel plant in the besieged port city of Mariupol, where an estimated 1,000 civilians are holed up alongside some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters.

Mr. Zelenskyy made headlines last week by saying some 120,000 other civilians remained trapped in Mariupol.

The city has become the main target of Russia’s revised war plan to control territory between the Russian border to the north and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

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Mariupol is in the midst of that territory along the Sea of Azov. For weeks, Russian forces have blocked the establishment of a sustainable humanitarian aid corridor into the city while preventing civilians from evacuating to western parts of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal accused Russian forces of committing “terrible war crimes” in Mariupol. He told the CBS program “Face the Nation” that “small children and babies” have died of dehydration in the city since the war began in late February.

Earlier, Mr. Zelenskyy accused Russians of committing war crimes by killing civilians and setting up “filtration camps” near Mariupol for people caught trying to leave the city.

Mr. Zelenskyy said Ukrainians were being sent from the camps to areas under Russian occupation or to Russia itself, often as far as Siberia or the Far East. Many of them, he said, are children.

The claims could not be independently verified, but Ukrainian parliament member Yevheniia Kravchuk told ABC’s “This Week” that Russian forces were attempting to forcibly deport tens of thousands of civilians.

“They have pulled these people from Mariupol. … [This] can’t be happening in the 21st century,” said Ms. Kravchuck.

She said Ukrainian officials “hope that maybe with help of other Western leaders … we will be able to take out the kids and women who are still in the basements … in Mariupol.”

Mr. Zelenskyy said over the weekend that intercepted communications recorded Russian troops discussing “how they conceal the traces of their crimes” in Mariupol.

He highlighted the death of a 3-month-old girl in a Russian missile strike Saturday on the Black Sea port of Odesa.

Ukraine’s national police said two girls, ages 5 and 14, died in shelling in the town of Ocheretyne.

Moscow has repeatedly denied Ukrainian and U.S. accusations that Russian forces are targeting civilians and carrying out war crimes.

International investigators have been trying to determine whether Russian forces retreating from areas near Kyiv in early April carried out atrocities against civilians.

Images of mass graves with bodies scattered around Bucha, a northwestern suburb of the Ukrainian capital, swirled through the global media space. Photos showed bodies in civilian clothes with bound hands and legs, close-range gunshot wounds and evidence of torture.

Mr. Zelenskyy said that he was seeking Turkey’s help as a mediator to diffuse the Mariupol crisis and try to facilitate peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

The Ukrainian president said Sunday on Twitter that he had asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to raise the issue of civilian evacuations from Mariupol. Mr. Erdogan was slated to have a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin later in the day.

Mr. Zelenskyy said he and Mr. Erdogan also discussed the course of the negotiation process and possible security guarantees for Ukraine from Turkey and other nations.

Mr. Erdogan’s office said the Turkish president told Mr. Zelenskyy that Turkey is ready to mediate and assist in talks between Ukraine and Russia.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday and then to Moscow and Kyiv. Mr. Zelenskyy has said it will be a mistake for Mr. Guterres to visit Russia before Ukraine.

“Why? To hand over signals from Russia? What should we look for?” the Ukrainian president said Saturday. “There are no corpses scattered on the Kutuzovsky Prospect,” he said, referring to one of Moscow’s main avenues. 

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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