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Rockets strike Lviv, indicating Russia’s unrelenting barrage

Medical personnel help Natalia Sokolvak as she arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine, after fleeing the nearby town of Irpin on March 26. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

MUKACHEVO, UKRAINE — Two powerful rockets struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, injuring at least five and leaving an industrial facility where fuel is stored on fire, as Russia ramped up its offensive on a day when President Biden was delivering a forceful speech on democracy in neighboring Poland.

The attacks came as a surprise and were a clear indication of escalation by Russian troops in a city that had been largely spared intense bombardment during the month-long invasion. Although Russian advances have seemingly slowed, the day’s events again proved how the war is just a hair’s breadth away from engulfing NATO nations or global powers in a catastrophic nuclear scenario.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chief of the Russian Security Council, reiterated in an interview on state media on Saturday that Russia could use nuclear weapons if there was any kind of attack that threatened the nation’s existence. Medvedev outlined the various scenarios under which Russia would use its nuclear weapons, saying that it “demonstrates our determination to defend the independence and sovereignty of our country.”

Lviv has become something of a western capital for the country, with many diplomats and others fleeing there from Kyiv and cities under heavy siege in the eastern part of the country. The city is widely regarded as a center of Ukrainian nationalism and culture, and it dates its official founding to more than seven centuries ago.

The attacks on Saturday sent some nervous Lviv residents scrambling underground. Maksym Kozytskyy, Lviv’s governor and head of the regional military, said an oil depot and a factory had been hit in residential areas of the city, which is 50 miles from the border with Poland. Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, said hours afterward that there had been “significant damage” to “infrastructure facilities” but that no residential homes were hit.

The strikes in Lviv came a day after Russia asserted that it had ended its first phase of the conflict, claiming to be shifting its attention to eastern Ukraine’s disputed territories. Pentagon intelligence also said that Russia had halted ground operations aimed at Kyiv, moving its focus instead on attacking the eastern Donbas region.

But others rebutted those suggestions. Russia is likely to continue using “heavy firepower on urban areas” in its bombardment of key Ukrainian cities including Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, Britain’s Defense Ministry warned Saturday in an intelligence update. The ministry said the Russian military was seeking to “limit its own already considerable losses” and would rely on siege tactics that further endanger civilian lives.

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, also warned that Moscow is misrepresenting its planned operations. The institute said in a statement Friday that Russian forces have not stopped fighting in other parts of the country and were “conducting operations and committing war crimes.” The institute believes the Kremlin still aims to seize Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and other major cities, and that any absence of significant Russian offensive operations probably reflects military shortcomings rather than a change in war aims.

The attack in Lviv appeared to prove the institute’s warning, given that the western city is close to the Ukraine-Poland border. It came just hours before President Biden delivered a strong condemnation of Russia’s Vladimir Putin during an address in Warsaw — 250 miles from Lviv.

“I think with these strikes the aggressor wants to say hello to President Biden who is in Poland,” Sadovyi told reporters after the attack. “I think the world has to understand, it has to be clear to everyone, that the threat is very very serious.”

Separately, Russian forces have entered Slavutych, a city of about 25,000 people that serves as a housing community for workers from the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and seized a hospital there, according to the governor of the Kyiv region, Oleksandr Pavlyuk.

Later Saturday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Russian shelling in Slavutych prevented workers at the closed plant from returning to their homes for about a week.

In Warsaw, Biden concluded a three-day visit to shore up relations with European allies by delivering what aides had said would be a “significant speech” on the importance of democracy over autocracy.

Biden warned Russia against moving on “one single inch” of territory belonging to allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On Friday, the president had met with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which is stationed in the area of Poland’s Rzeszow Airport. Its members are serving alongside Polish forces to bolster NATO’s front-line defenses.

Putin’s actions, Biden said, have had an unexpected effect for the Russian leader: They have drawn NATO allies closer.

“Russia’s brutal tactics have strengthened the resolve,” Biden said. “Rather than drive NATO apart, the West is now stronger and more united than it's ever been.”

“In fact, Russia has managed to cause something I’m sure he never intended,” Biden added. “The democracies of the world are revitalized with purpose and unity found in months that we’ve once taken years to accomplish.”

The most surprising comments came at the end of his 27-minute speech, when Biden said that Putin “cannot remain in power,” an off-the-cuff remark. A White House official later clarified that the president wasn’t discussing “regime change” but rather was arguing that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”

The White House said Biden spoke afterward with Belarus’s democratic opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who attended his speech in Warsaw. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been beholden to Putin since Belarus’s disputed 2020 election, when street protests nearly toppled him from power before Putin promised to send in Russian forces to quell unrest if required. Lukashenko launched a massive crackdown, beating and jailing hundreds of opposition figures and activists, and clung on without Putin’s help.

The Belarusian opposition, led by Tikhanovskaya, has called for limits on Lukashenko’s powers and encouraged Belarusians to protest the war against Ukraine.

Earlier on Saturday, the president comforted refugees at a stadium in Warsaw and met with the city’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, who warned in an interview with The Washington Post recently that the city’s services were at risk of being overwhelmed.

As of Friday, over 2.2 million displaced Ukrainians have fled to Poland — more than to any other country. Biden on Thursday said the United States would accept up to100,000 Ukrainian refugees, as well as others fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Biden on Saturday also held his first meeting with high-level officials since the war started. He dropped in for 40 minutes on a summit that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov were having with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw.

The president reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine — including in the form of historic levels of humanitarian aid. He also received updates on the country’s progress on military, diplomatic and humanitarian fronts. Biden and the Ukrainian officials also discussed efforts by the United States and its allies to place sanctions on Putin for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Blinken separately announced that the United States will provide Ukraine with an additional $100 million in security assistance. The aid will include armored vehicles, medical supplies, protective gear and communications equipment for the country’s State Border Guard Service and police. Since the beginning of the Biden administration, aid to Ukraine has exceeded $2 billion.

But Ukrainian officials so far have been unhappy with the level of commitment from the U.S. and NATO allies in response to aggression, and its leaders haven’t been afraid to say so.

On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continued to press his global campaign to isolate Russia. On Saturday, he called on oil and natural gas exporters to increase production to help “stabilize the situation in Europe” and prevent Russia from using its energy resources as political “blackmail.”

Europe is heavily reliant on Russian exports of fossil fuels, which make up about 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas supplies and more than a quarter of its oil.

In video remarks, Zelensky compared conditions in Mariupol to “what we all saw in Aleppo” — a reference to the northern Syrian city, once the country’s largest, that was relentlessly bombarded by Syrian and Russian warplanes during Syria’s civil war. Russia has been accused of committing war crimes in both Aleppo and Mariupol for indiscriminately striking civilians and hospitals, among other allegations.

Zelensky made the comments as part of a video statement to Qatar’s Doha Forum, an annual policy summit held in the oil-rich Persian Gulf country. The United States banned imports of Russian oil and natural gas on March 8. European Union officials say they aim to cut imports of Russian gas by two-thirds by year’s end and to end the bloc’s dependence for good by the close of the decade. To do so, they plan to accelerate renewable energy initiatives already underway.

Tyler Pager in Warsaw; Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia; Missy Ryan and Marisa Iati in Washington; and Kim Bellware in Chicago contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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