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Putin defends war as possible use of chemical weapons is investigated

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on April 12 that Moscow's military operation in Ukraine would undoubtedly achieve its objectives. (Video: Reuters)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday called the war in Ukraine a “tragedy” but insisted the invasion will continue unabated, as the United States and its allies launched investigations into reports of a possible chemical attack ahead of an imminent Russian offensive in the country’s east.

Putin said there was no clear end to the conflict and “no choice” but to forge ahead with the invasion, brushing off the impacts of punitive sanctions during a visit to the Amur region in Russia’s far east where he met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

“We will act rhythmically, calmly, according to the plan that was originally proposed by the General Staff,” he said.

“What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy, no doubt about that. But we had no choice. It was just a matter of time” before an attack on Russia, he added.

Putin also said peace negotiations had reached a deadlock, blaming the Ukrainian side. “Kyiv moved away from the Istanbul agreements, so we are back to an impasse,” Putin said, referring to negotiations in the Turkish city late last month. “Yesterday, I was told that the Ukrainian side has changed something in its negotiating position. I don’t know the details yet.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is poised to dramatically expand the scope of weapons it’s providing Ukraine, U.S. officials said Tuesday, with the Pentagon looking to send armored Humvees and a range of other equipment.

The new aid package could be worth $750 million, these people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the transfer has not yet been finalized.

Preliminary plans circulating among government officials and lawmakers in Washington included Mi-17 helicopters, howitzer cannons, coastal defense drones and protective suits to safeguard personnel in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear weapons attack, the officials said, though they cautioned that it was not immediately clear whether all of those items would end up in the final package. A defense official said late Tuesday that helicopters will not be included.

President Biden on Tuesday said the war amount to a “genocide,” saying that Putin is trying to “wipe out the idea of being a Ukrainian.” Senior administration officials had earlier been unwilling to use the word genocide to describe Russia’s actions.

President Biden talked about why he called the war in Ukraine a "genocide" on April 12. "It sure seems that way to me," he said. (Video: The Washington Post)

The United States and its allies have launched investigations into reports that Russian forces had used chemical weapons in the battered city of Mariupol. Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC on Tuesday that the city council has confirmed a “chemical poisoning” delivered via a Russian drone, but senior Ukrainian officials have been careful not to confirm the use of chemical weapons pending an investigation.

The reports stem from a claims by the Azov Battalion — a Ukrainian paramilitary group associated with far-right nationalism — that civilians were exposed to an “unknown” harmful substance but are now in a “relatively satisfactory” condition with some experiencing high blood pressure, heartburn, dryness around the eyes and throat, and a condition where blood rushes to the face.

Hubris and isolation led Vladimir Putin to misjudge Ukraine

The United States will face a “host of difficulties” in verifying the attack because of a lack of access to the region, said a senior U.S. defense official on Tuesday.

“These are difficult things to prove even when you are more proximate, and we are not. … And so I think you can understand we want to be very careful here before making a proclamation,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Tuesday that “we have credible information that Russian forces may use a variety of riot control agents” to weaken Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in an effort to besiege Mariupol, a strategic port city.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar cited “a theory” that the weapons could have been phosphorous munitions. White phosphorous is not considered a chemical weapon and as such is not explicitly banned by international humanitarian laws, but it has the capacity to severely harm civilians.

An eight-mile convoy of Russian troops and weapons has begun maneuvering 37 miles north of Izyum, a Ukrainian city strategically situated to the north of Mariupol and occupied by Russian forces. It is likely to become a staging ground for fresh attacks, according to the Pentagon.

The armored group, which includes a command element and combat enablers, could at least partially resupply other forces in the region, the senior U.S. defense official said.

Poor weather in the eastern Donbas region is expected to slow any immediate Russian advances, according to Ukrainian officials. In a television interview on Tuesday, Serhiy Haidai, the regional governor of Luhansk, said that forecasts for heavy rain in the coming days are “100 percent to our advantage,” as Russian forces will probably be forced to move in column formations along major roads, making them an “easy target.”

Russian airstrikes, however, have continued to hammer cities in Ukraine’s south and east. Russia has launched 1,540 missiles at Ukraine since the war began, according to the latest figures released by the Pentagon.

Haidai said in a separate social media post on Tuesday that morgues in the Luhansk region were “overflowing” following shelling attacks. He said that cemeteries in some areas were inaccessible and volunteers and that utility workers took advantage of periods between shellings to bury the dead in temporary graves carved out by tractors. In areas under Russian occupation, organized burials are not possible, leaving residents to bury the dead in yards, he said.

In Ukraine, Facebook fact-checkers fight a war on two fronts

High-level foreign figures have continued to pledge support for the embattled country, including a delegation of religious leaders from the United States, Europe and Israel that arrived in Ukraine on Tuesday to speak with refugees. However, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier reportedly scrapped plans for a potential trip to Kyiv after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated he would not meet with him, according to Bild, a German daily.

Steinmeier appeared to acknowledge the rejection during an appearance in Warsaw, where he said a visit “was not wanted in Kyiv.” The snub highlights friction between Zelensky and the German government, which has balked at calls for a blanket embargo of Russian energy imports and sidestepped commitments to send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Putin on Tuesday said that the “sanctions blitzkrieg” against Russia had failed as a deterrent and that the economy remained stable, as Russian officials separately threatened legal action against governments that have sanctioned Moscow.

Standard & Poor’s cut Russia’s credit rating on Friday after it defaulted on its sovereign debt by paying dollar-denominated bondholders in rubles. S&P said those bondholders can’t expect to convert the payments to dollars because of sanctions. Alongside a raft of other financial measures, the United States has barred Russia from using funds held in American banks to pay its debts.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the default a “man-made” crisis by Western governments. “We will sue, because we have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that investors receive their payments,” said Siluanov.

Globally, the conflict is “violently disrupting” international trade in food and agriculture products, exacerbating the global poverty crisis, according to new reports from aid groups. Oxfam warned in a report released Tuesday that 263 million more people are expected to lapse into extreme poverty this year as the invasion continues to cause a spike in food and energy prices.

Inside Ukraine, the economic toll of the conflict has already reached hundreds of billions of dollars, according to Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko. The cost of damage to critical infrastructure is currently about $120 billion, while further damage to social and military infrastructure could add up to “more than $500 billion,” he said in an interview with Sky News on Tuesday, calling on Russia to pay reparations after the war is over.

Zelensky said Monday in his nightly address that retreating Russian forces left “tens if not hundreds of thousands” of unexploded shells and mines in northeastern Ukraine, further complicating the region’s recovery.

“They consciously did everything to make the return to these areas after de-occupation as dangerous as possible,” he said.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said April 11 more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in the Russian siege of his city. (Video: Reuters)

Nearly two-thirds of Ukrainian children displaced by war, U.N. says

In a boost for the Kyiv government, one of Putin’s trusted Ukrainian allies and friends, oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, was recaptured Tuesday by Ukraine’s internal security service after weeks in hiding, according to the presidential administration.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky said this weekend that more than 6,500 explosive devices were found within a 24-hour period as the cleanup continues, including in locations he believes were targeting soldiers, police and rescuers such as doorways, washing machines and under helmets.

In the northern city of Bucha, which is recovering after a brutal month-long occupation, Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said in a news conference that the city had opened a second mass grave on Tuesday to bury 56 people killed in the conflict. Bucha has so far recovered 403 bodies, but that number is expected to rise, he said.

A total of 2,671 people were able to escape via humanitarian corridors in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, according to Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk. A UNICEF report estimated that almost two-thirds of Ukrainian children have been displaced during the conflict so far, and over 90 percent of the 4.5 million people who have fled the country so far are women and children.

Lamothe and Cadell reported from Washington; Ilyushina reported from Riga, Latvia; Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Adela Suliman and Annabelle Timsit in London; Andrew Jeong, Amy Cheng and Bryan Pietsch in Seoul; Annabelle C. Chapman in Paris; Tyler Pager in Des Moines; and Evan Halper, Jeff Stein, Herman Wong and Isaac Stanley-Becker in Washington contributed to this report.