Russia has widened its war in Ukraine by targeting areas in the west of the country and appears to be regrouping troops near the capital, Kyiv, as the United States and its allies increase sanctions on Moscow.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence, confirmed Russia had begun targeting sites in western Ukraine, hitting airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk on Friday, part of a salvo of more than 800 missiles launched since the start of the invasion.
While advance elements of Russian forces northwest of Kyiv are still about 15 kilometers from the city center, Russian support elements are moving closer to the city, the official also said.
“We do assess that the Russians are beginning to make more momentum on the ground toward Kyiv, particularly from the east,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday.
Ukrainian forces were continuing to mount “an adaptive and nimble” defense that was frustrating Russian forces, according to the senior U.S. defense official.
The official also told reporters that the U.S. was seeing signs that Russian forces, and the Russian air force in particular, were displaying a “general risk aversion” while also showing their inexperience.
“This is not a military that has great expeditionary capability and experience,” the official said. “Nothing on this scale.”
But the official also warned there were indications of Russian forces learning from their early missteps.
Other major cities, such as Mariupol and Chernihiv, were increasingly isolated.
“We continue to see heavy bombardment” in Mariupol, the defense official said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday in a broadcast video, without elaborating, that his military had reached a “strategic turning point.”
“It’s impossible to say how many days we will still need to free our land, but it is possible to say that we will do it because … we have reached a strategic turning point,” he said.
The United States on Friday issued new sanctions on Russia, targeting another group of oligarchs and elites, including the family of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and banning imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds.
The move came after the U.S., the European Union and the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations said they would suspend normal trade relations with Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
Revoking Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status allows the U.S. and its allies to begin the process of raising tariffs on many Russian goods, further weakening Russia’s economy, which the International Monetary Fund predicts will slide into a “deep recession” this year.
Each country must change Russia’s trading status in accordance with its own national procedures, U.S. officials said. In the U.S., the move requires an act of Congress, and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have signaled their support.
The EU on Friday also announced additional sanctions on Russia, including banning the import of iron and steel goods from Russia and the export of luxury goods into Russia.
The U.S. and its allies previously imposed an unprecedented array of sanctions and export and banking restrictions designed to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin into ending his war against Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War II.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Zelenskyy by phone on Friday, the White House said, updating him on U.S. and ally moves to further raise the cost of war for Russia. Biden also highlighted “how the United States is continuing to surge security, humanitarian and economic assistance to Ukraine.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said during a visit to Romania that Putin had shown no willingness to pursue a diplomatic solution to the conflict, one day after Washington warned Moscow about what some observers described as war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine.
Putin disputed Harris’ claim Friday, saying, without offering details, that there had been positive developments in talks with Ukraine and that the negotiations “are now being held almost on a daily basis.”
Harris spoke in Bucharest as she met with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and other officials on the second stop of a three-day trip to Eastern Europe to discuss the worsening refugee crisis.
War crimes allegations
Harris said in Poland earlier this week that she supported a U.N. inquiry into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that would look at “all alleged rights violations and abuses, and related crimes.”
“Absolutely there should be an investigation, and we should all be watching,” the vice president said before a meeting in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda in a show of support for NATO’s allies in Eastern Europe.
Harris’ comments came one day after a Russian airstrike on a children’s hospital with a maternity ward. The attack in Mariupol killed at least three people, including a child, according to Ukrainian officials.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in its invasion of Ukraine.
It is challenging to determine whether war crimes took place because it is difficult to determine intent, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday.
“The element that requires due diligence and investigation is that element of intentionality. Was it the intent of Russian fighter jets, was it the intention of Russian commanders at sea, to drop munitions, to fire missiles, to use force against civilians?” Price said.
The U.S. and other countries are in the process of documenting and investigating Russia’s actions, he added.
Security Council meeting0
U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu said at an emergency Security Council meeting Friday that the U.N. was “not aware” of biological or chemical weapons being developed in Ukraine with help from the U.S., as alleged by Russia without evidence.
The U.S. and Ukraine have denied Russia’s allegations. Russia had requested the meeting after its production of biological weapons came under questioning by the council during a session on Syria.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told council members the Biden administration was “deeply concerned” about Russia’s allegations, saying they were part of a “false flag effort” to lay the groundwork for its own use of biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine.
A senior U.S. defense official said earlier Friday that “this harping … could be building some sort of pretext for a false flag event.”
National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.