- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Delicate cease-fires held for several hours along humanitarian aid and civilian evacuation corridors in some areas of Ukraine on Tuesday, even as Russian forces pounded other negotiated escape routes and local authorities warned that the number of civilians killed by Russian missile strikes continued to climb.

At least 21 people, including two children, died in pre-dawn Russian strikes on the northeastern city of Sumy before an evacuation corridor was established. Another corridor briefly allowed medicine and food to flow toward the southern city of Mariupol until Russian shelling shut it down.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, channeling Winston Churchill, told a packed British House of Commons in a video address that his country would continue to resist Russian forces but needed much more help from the West to put up a defense.

“We will fight till the end at sea and in the air,” Mr. Zelenskyy said at one point. “We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets. … We are the country saving people despite having to fight one of the biggest armies in the world.”

On Day 13 of Russia’s invasion, the U.S. and NATO signaled a dramatic increase in support for Ukraine’s military. Poland offered to transfer its MiG-29 fighter jets to the U.S., which would give them to Ukraine. Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly the Soviet-era jets.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby poured cold water on the proposal. He said sensitivities and complexities made the proposed swap difficult to carry out.

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In a separate move to escalate pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the invasion, President Biden announced a U.S. ban on oil, natural gas and coal imports from Russia. The embargo will sharpen sanctions but also is likely to send gasoline prices higher across the U.S. The British government announced a similar move.

Fast-food giant McDonald’s joined the parade of Western service and manufacturing companies abandoning the Russian market in protest by announcing a temporary closure of more than 800 restaurants. The fast-food chain was once a symbol of post-Cold War unity between the U.S. and Russia. The first McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow opened in 1990 in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Nexta TV, a Belarusian-based broadcaster, posted online photos of Russians in lines stretching down the block outside a McDonald’s outlet before it closed. Coke, Pepsi and Starbucks all also announced they were suspending Russian sales. Russia was Pepsi’s second-largest overseas market after Mexico.

Mr. Zelenskyy praised the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports and thanked Mr. Biden via Twitter for showing “personal leadership” and “striking in the heart of Putin’s war machine.”

In his address to British lawmakers, the Ukrainian president quoted Shakespeare. He said the question facing Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion is “to be or not to be.” He added, “I can give you a definitive answer: It’s definitely to be.”

Putin presses on

SEE ALSO: U.S. intel sees no unusual activity from Russian nuclear forces despite Putin order

Mr. Putin showed no sign of backing away from the invasion despite a U.S. intelligence assessment that his military campaign was facing an unexpectedly vigorous Ukrainian resistance and Moscow was having problems providing logistical support for the 100,000 Russian troops in Ukraine.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the Russian president may be on the verge of escalating the war. “We assess Putin feels aggrieved the West does not give him proper deference and perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose,” she said.

Ms. Haines told lawmakers that Russian nuclear forces have not moved to an unusually heightened state of alert. Mr. Putin announced on Feb. 27 that the country’s massive nuclear arsenal was being put on a “special combat readiness” state as the U.S. and NATO rushed to back Kyiv.

The prospect of a nuclear standoff with Mr. Putin has sharpened worst-case-scenario fears of a combat escalation. International concerns are also soaring over a rising sea of refugees fleeing the violence. Officials said 2 million people — half of them children — have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries over the past two weeks.

The humanitarian situation in several besieged Ukrainian cities grew more dire. The Associated Press reported that bodies lay uncollected in the streets of Mariupol. Civilians in the Black Sea port city waited anxiously for word that they would be allowed to evacuate via a route under a Ukrainian and Russian agreement reached Monday in Belarus.

People did manage to leave Sumy on buses through another humanitarian corridor. Ukrainian officials also said a safe corridor had been opened from the embattled town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, but it was not clear how long it remained open and how many people used it.

The situation in Mariupol appeared increasingly tense. Officials said the city was isolated but as of Tuesday had not fallen to the Russians. The capture of Mariupol could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. More broadly, the battle appeared to be part of a Kremlin campaign to cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea, which would deal a heavy blow to its economy. Mariupol is on the Sea of Azov, which opens onto the Black Sea.

The city is now without water, heat, working sewage systems or phone service. Authorities planned to start digging mass graves for all the dead.

The developments coincide with a widening international effort to bolster Ukrainian defenses. The New York Times reported Monday that the U.S. and NATO had pushed more than 17,000 anti-tank weapons, including Javelin missiles, over the borders of Poland and Romania. The weapons were unloaded from giant military cargo planes so they could make the trip by land to Kyiv and other major cities.

Offer from Poland

The Ukrainians have also asked for fighter jets, and it briefly appeared that a workaround was falling into place. Poland announced that it was prepared to hand over its entire fleet of MiG-29 fighters if the United States and other NATO countries provide Polish forces with comparable replacement combat aircraft.

The offer, however, showed how delicate the situation is for the U.S. and NATO trying to aid Kyiv without goading Mr. Putin into expanding the war beyond Ukraine.

Under Warsaw’s plan, the MiG-29s would be delivered to Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany and could later be transferred to Ukraine. Poland is believed to have more than two dozen of the fighter planes.

“At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities,” the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement. “Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.”

The Soviet-era MiG-29, known by NATO countries as the Fulcrum, was designed in the mid-1970s to counter U.S. jets such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-15 Eagle. It is the primary fighter used by Ukraine’s air force, and Ukrainian pilots have a broad familiarity with them.

The Pentagon’s statement later in the day made it clear that the coordinated transfer was too tricky.

“The prospect of fighter jets ’at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America’ departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” Mr. Kirby’s statement read.

“It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it,” Mr. Kirby said. “We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.”

Concerns over the prospect that the war could dramatically escalate have been rising since Mr. Putin’s announcement last week that he was putting Russian nuclear forces on alert. The U.S. and NATO have repeatedly denied plans to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine despite pleas from Mr. Zelenskyy, saying it would risk a direct clash between Russian and NATO forces.

In his vague remarks last week, the Russian president did not use terms for a formal nuclear alert, but it was the first time since the 1960s that Moscow has made a public statement about increasing its nuclear war-fighting readiness. Mr. Putin issued the order with a warning to the U.S. and NATO countries not to get involved in the Ukraine conflict.

CIA Director William Burns, who testified along with Ms. Haines and other intelligence leaders before the House intelligence panel, said the Russian nuclear saber-rattling is a concern because of Moscow’s doctrine of “escalate to deescalate” during a regional conflict.

Russia will use tactical nuclear strikes “in extremis” if its forces fail to pacify Ukraine and if U.S. and NATO forces join the war, Mr. Burns said.

Army Lt. Gen. D. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also warned that the danger of nuclear escalation in Eastern Europe is real and that Mr. Putin has invested in developing new tactical nuclear arms. “When he says something like that, we should listen very, very carefully and take him at his word,” Gen. Berrier told lawmakers.

National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone testified that he is concerned Moscow will launch cyberattacks against Ukraine that could spread beyond the country. Russian cyberattacks could strike U.S. allies and ultimately critical U.S. infrastructure such as electric grids, transportation and communications networks, Gen. Nakasone said.

Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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

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