Russian forces stepped up their assault on eastern Ukraine on Sunday and drew global condemnation after an airstrike reportedly killed 60 people sheltering inside a school, the latest example of what U.S. officials say is a clear pattern of war crimes committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army.
The Russian bombing of Bilohorivka, a village in the disputed Donbas region, also killed two boys, ages 11 and 14, Ukrainian officials said. It happened just hours before first lady Jill Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made surprise visits to western Ukraine and expressed solidarity with Ukrainian troops, and shortly before the White House announced another round of economic sanctions on Moscow.
The offensive in eastern Ukraine has taken on renewed urgency ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebration, which commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Mr. Putin and his top military commanders have come under increasing pressure to deliver a clear victory ahead of the national holiday Monday, though U.S. and other Western observers say the Russian military has woefully underperformed in Ukraine and has yet to address deep, systemic shortcomings within its ranks.
Biden administration officials said the parades in Moscow on Monday will only highlight how poorly the Russian armed forces have fared in Ukraine and the damage to the nation’s economy as a result of the war.
“They have nothing to celebrate tomorrow,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “They have not succeeded in defeating the Ukrainians. They have not succeeded in dividing the world or dividing NATO. And they have only succeeded in isolating themselves internationally and becoming a pariah state around the world.”
SEE ALSO: Russia’s war in Ukraine about destroying ‘Nazi filth,’ Putin says
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said the Bilohorivka attack seems to be another entry on “the long list we already have” of Russian war crimes.
The Bilohorivka school was sheltering about 90 people at the time of the strike. Thirty were rescued, officials said.
“Most likely, all 60 people who remain under the rubble are now dead,” Serhiy Haidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk province, wrote in a message on Telegram.
Russian forces tried to push the final Ukrainian defenders out of the port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated after weeks of nonstop shelling. About 2,000 Ukrainian troops are holed up inside the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, which has become a key logistical target for the Russian forces and a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance.
All women, children and older civilians who had been sheltering in the plant were evacuated over the weekend, Ukrainian officials said.
In western Ukraine, Mrs. Biden crossed into the country from neighboring Slovakia. She met with Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady and wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
U.S. officials said the two women have been in touch over the past several weeks as the Russian assault on the Donbas has intensified.
“The hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine,” Mrs. Biden said.
Mr. Trudeau visited Irpin, a city near Kyiv. Irpin sustained severe damage in the early weeks of the war as Russian troops tried to take the capital.
Mr. Trudeau’s visit was meant to “reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people,” the prime minister’s office said.
The Biden administration and Western allies rolled out another round of economic sanctions on Russia, targeting top banks, a state-supported weapons manufacturer, shipping companies and even state-owned news outlets that the State Department said are “spreading disinformation to bolster Putin’s war.”
“As the people of Ukraine continue to fight bravely against Russia’s brutality, we will continue imposing severe costs to hold President Putin accountable for his utter disregard for human rights and fundamental freedom,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
‘This war is a disaster’
With the Ukraine offensive largely stalled and global pressure growing, Mr. Putin sought to rally his forces and resuscitate the blundering campaign. He once again framed the conflict in terms of good versus evil, harking back to World War II as he falsely claimed that Nazis had taken control of Ukraine.
Mr. Putin formally congratulated the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moscow recognizes the two breakaway enclaves in the Donbas region as independent republics, but they officially remain part of Ukraine.
“In his congratulations, the president of Russia particularly emphasized that, on this day, we pay our tribute of appreciation and respect to the warriors and home front workers, who crushed Nazism at a price of countless casualties and hardships,” the Kremlin said in a statement, according to the state-run Tass news agency.
Today’s Russian troops, Mr. Putin said, also “are fighting together to liberate their soil from the Nazi filth.”
Still, there are clear signs that the Russian offensive hasn’t lived up to Mr. Putin’s hopes, and Western officials have taken notice.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the visual of Russia’s massive Victory Day celebrations will stand in stark contrast with the reality on the ground in Ukraine.
“Here’s what I think will happen: If we stick with Ukraine, they’re not going to give up. Over time, the Russian people will turn on Putin,” Mr. Graham said. “This war is a disaster. You’ll see a parade Monday, but the parade doesn’t reflect the Russian military. You see the Russian military getting their ass handed to them on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
Indeed, the performance of Russian forces in Ukraine has been unimpressive by virtually any measure. Russia has sustained much higher than expected casualties and has lost hundreds of tanks and other vehicles. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are taking full advantage of American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles and other weaponry provided by the West.
Ukrainian forces last month sank a key Russian warship, dealing a huge psychological blow to the Russian military. Three weeks later, another Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, was reportedly hit and damaged.
After weeks of failure early in the war, Russian forces abandoned their campaign to capture Kyiv and have instead turned their attention to the disputed eastern Donbas region.
Foreign analysts say the Russian military is plagued by a host of systemic problems that limit its chances for success. Chief among them is the high casualty rate among senior military offers and the apparent inability of lower-ranking service members to replace them.
“Difficulties in command and control, as well as faltering Russian performance on the front line, have drawn senior commanders onto the battlefield, likely to take personal leadership of operations. Russian commanders rarely delegate operational authority to their subordinates, who in turn do not gain vital leadership experience,” the British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update on the Ukraine conflict.
“However, it is not clear that the presence of these commanders on the battlefield has led to a refined or altered operational concept,” the Defense Ministry said. “The forward deployment of commanders has exposed them to significant risk, leading to disproportionately high losses of Russian officers in this conflict. This has resulted in a force that is slow to respond to setbacks and unable to alter its approach on the battlefield. These issues are likely to endure given the relative lack of operational command experience of the officers promoted in place of those killed.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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